Egyptian Media Stages Blackout to Protest Troubling Language in New Draft Constitution
A number of independent Egyptian news outlets shut down this week in protest of language in President Mohamed Morsi's draft constitution that poses a potential danger to free expression. About a dozen of Egypt's most prominent papers, including Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Tahrir, Al-Wafd, Al-Watan, Al-Youm Al-Sabae, Al-Fagr and Al-Ahrars took part in the strike on Tuesday. Several TV channels, including ONTV, Dream TV and CBC, ceased broadcasting on Wednesday.
The Egypt Independent showed the following message on their website as part of the strike: "You are reading this message because Egypt Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity."
Protests kicked off after Morsi issued a decree on November 22 allowing him to legislate without oversight by the Egyptian judiciary. The opposition has described Morsi's proposed changes as a "power grab." They, including members of the media, are worried about these extended powers being used to stifle criticism of the government, religious, and political figures.
The draft constitution itself is similarly controversial, with articles that limit freedom of expression by championing religious conservatism. In spite of concerns about content, the draft was hurriedly passed by the assembly last week. (Click here for an English translation of the draft constitution.)
Articles 45, 48, and 49 of the draft constitution protect the freedom to express opinions, freedom of the press, and freedom of publication. However, Article 31 forbids "insulting or showing contempt toward any human being," and Article 44 prohibits the insulting of religious prophets. Articles 11 and 46 gives the state the power to safeguard "public morality" and "cultural heritage." All of these additions, ambiguities, and exceptions serve to gut the guarantee of freedom of expression, and could potentially be used to silence the kinds of challenging speech where the need for protection is greatest. A national referendum on the draft will take place on December 15.
Tens of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets, worried that Morsi's constitutional plan will simply be a rehashing of the domineering regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, who regularly censored the media. The protests have since turned violent—even deadly.
Hosni Mubarak was driven out in February 2011 during the revolution in Egypt, but the military regime that followed him seemed to be no better about protecting freedom of expression. In June 2012, after a democratic election, Islamist Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as president.
Online blackouts fueled by political protest have a long history, beginning with a backlash against the United States' passage of the Communications Decency Act in 1996. Most recently, an unprecedented number of sites shut down on January 18 of this year in protest of two harmful Internet bills, SOPA and PIPA.
EFF supports Egyptian independent media in this protest and will continue to monitor the situation closely as it develops.