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Egypt's New Leader Accused Of Censorship


In Egypt, the first democratically elected president is under fire. He's being accused of trying to silence his critics. In a span of just two weeks, a satellite TV channel was pulled off the air, two journalists were referred to criminal court for defamation, and a state newspaper was accused of censoring columns critical of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, of which he is a member. NPR's Leila Fadel filed this report.

ISLAM AFIFI: (Foreign language spoken)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Islam Afifi sits in a downtown cafe shaking his head in disbelief. His trial on charges of insulting the president and publishing false news that could incite violence is scheduled to begin today.

AFIFI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The bespectacled editor of the Dustour newspaper is critical of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Now Afifi wonders aloud if the once-banned group has forgotten its own past. Two years ago, its members were persecuted by Hosni Mubarak's government and detained simply for opposing the establishment.   Afifi says Morsi wasted no time turning on his critics. He says this is the first sign that the Brotherhood will not uphold democratic principles.


FADEL: His newspaper is still being printed, but one issue that essentially called for a military coup against the president was confiscated by authorities. Critics say the Brotherhood is packing state institutions with its allies. The new state newspaper editors are all believed to be supporters of the Islamist group.

TAWFIQ OKASHA: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: A well known TV personality is also facing trial in Cairo. Tawfiq Okasha is a fiery television host in the vein of Glenn Beck. Now he has become the unlikely poster child of the persecution of freedom of speech in Egypt. His channel was pulled off the air after he was accused of inciting violence against the president.

OKASHA: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: In one television address, Okasha warned that he has monsters and lions to help him defeat what he calls the illegitimate president. He'll set the country on fire he says. And he calls the president's blood fair game.

Many say that Okasha's firebrand TV addresses are seditious. But even the most unlikely of allies are coming to his defense. Not because they agree with him, but because they fear that this is the start of a campaign against a free press.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

FADEL: In downtown Cairo recently, a few dozen people protested against censorship.

I'll stay free with my pen in my hand, they say.

Adel Abdel Hamid surveys the crowd.

ADEL ABDEL HAMID: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He says, Morsi will turn the summer day into a time of no sun and no liberty.

HAMID: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Today you pull the TV channel and then you intimidate a journalist, he says. What comes next?

But Naila Hamdy, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, isn't as alarmed. She says the moves against the media are disturbing, but she has faith in a changed society.

NAILA HAMDY: I just see this as the same tools being used during the Mubarak regime and previous to Mubarak. The only difference, I imagine or I hope, the only difference will be that the journalists and the media professionals themselves have changed.

FADEL: A spokesman for the Brotherhood's political wing, Nader Omran, says it has no intention of silencing critics. He says the criminal court cases were not ordered by Morsi, and the president must respect the judiciary.

NADER OMRAN: You know, that freedom - not freedom of speech - just freedom, mere freedom, means that you are free but till the point that you don't violate the others.

FADEL: Omran says what Okasha spouts on TV is hate speech and a crime in Egypt.

OMRAN: Let's kill the president, no I don't think that any person can say this is freedom of speech

FADEL: Dina Zacharia, a founding member of the Brotherhood, adds critics who don't lie are protected.

DINA ZACHARIA: We respect such kind of people who are opposing our point of view, and maybe they don't agree about most of our points of view and ideology, and so on. But they are realistic and they are stick to the - really the laws of their mission. But what happened with Okasha and the people like him, no, they were not just doing that. They were lying all the time.

FADEL: Analysts say, that Egypt is in dire need of legal guidelines that both protect the media and holds it accountable. Right now, journalists who insult the president face jail time.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.


GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.