Egypt's Morsi moves to ease claims of censorship, media crackdown

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CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree Thursday to cancel the detention of defendants awaiting trial for media offenses. It was his first legislative act since claiming wider authority from the military this month and came amid increasing accusations of state censorship.

The decision not to imprison journalists awaiting “trial for media offenses is the president’s first use of legislative powers and it will be applied to release Islam Afifi, editor in chief of Al Dustour newspaper,” Yasser Ali, the presidential spokesman, was quoted saying by the state news agency.

Egypt’s first Islamist president announced the decree, seen as a move to calm growing criticism against him, hours after a criminal court ordered Afifi to remain in custody pending his trial Sept. 16. Accused of defaming and insulting the president, Afifi heads the newspaper owned by the Wafd Party, a longtime opponent of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Last week, two newspaper editors were summoned for questioning after a lawyer with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party filed a case accusing the journalists of insulting the president and spreading false information.

Tawfik Okasha, a talk show host known for his support of deposed President Hosni Mubarak and his contempt for the Muslim Brotherhood, was also banned from television when a court ordered his channel to be shut down after he was accused of similar charges.

Morsi has come under sharp criticism for a vigorous media clampdown that activists and journalists say has been orchestrated by his supporters and political bloc. Activists said the attacks on the media and freedom of expression have been more blatant than under Mubarak, who was pushed out of power after last year’s uprising against his autocratic rule.

“I've been a blogger since 2004. I haven't witnessed such a rate in media curbing,” an Egyptian activist said Thursday via Twitter.

Morsi demonstrated his boldness this month by forcing the former ruling military council’s top officials into retirement and striking down the armed forces’ constitutional declaration that had limited his duties. Morsi then handed himself legislative and executive authorities in the absence of a parliament. The Islamist-dominated legislature was dissolved in June by the military-backed Supreme Constitutional Court.

Shortly after Morsi's military reshuffle, Ali said the president “would only use his legislative authorities under exceptional circumstances.”

Human rights groups and media companies have criticized Morsi’s curbs on journalists. U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said recently, "We are very concerned by reports that the Egyptian government is moving to restrict media freedom and criticism in Egypt."

Al Dustour's editorials have been provocative. Before presidential election results were announced in late June, the paper published a full-page ad quoting unnamed sources alleging that the Muslim Brotherhood would be responsible for bloodshed if Morsi lost the race to Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's prime minister.

"If Mohamed Morsi loses, trained groups from the Muslim Brotherhood will encourage youth to protest against Ahmed Shafik as the Brotherhood fires live ammunition at citizens and deploys snipers on tops of buildings. If Mohamed Morsi does win, then 200 key public figures will be [executed] in a specific time all at once as a warning to incite fear among people," the ad read.

The ad also claimed members of Bedouin tribes would take advantage of the political upheaval and attack checkpoints in Sinai, allowing Hamas and the Iranian army to seize the peninsula.

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-- Reem Abdellatif

Photo: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on July 2, 2012. Credit: Khaled Desouki / AFP/Getty Images

 
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