Egyptians go to the polls Sunday in the first phase of parliamentary elections amid reports of growing restrictions on local and foreign media coverage. Hisham Kassem is the former publisher of the Egypt’s first independent daily newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm. He is also the former chairman of the Egypt Organization of Human Rights. He tells VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary that the government has harassed both local and foreign media outlets but that broadcast media have faced the worst of the crackdown.
Hilleary: Let me ask you about the climate in Egypt now, just three days before parliamentary elections take place. The government of President Hosni Mubarak says the elections will be free and fair, but we hear reports of a tough crackdowns, not just on the opposition, but the press. What’s the atmosphere in the media as we head toward Sunday?
Hisham: Well, there’s been all sorts of harassment to international media, to local media, with broadcasts, specifically, because that’s where the high viewership is. The local satellite channels, which are all owned by big businessmen and recently, there was a crackdown. Seventeen channels were closed down, the bulk of them on grounds of inciting sectarian strife.
But also, warnings were made to other channels who have nothing but political talk shows, and the tone in covering elections is much lower, and they are trying to avoid broadcast of anything that might annoy the regime.
The regime launched a complaint I think, or made a statement against the BBC World Service recently and they seem to be really annoyed because of the BBC’s impartial coverage of what’s going on.
With print, it’s a little more open, because the reach of print is much lower. However, there is still that cautious tone in covering the days leading up to the elections.
Hilleary: How much access will journalists have to the polling itself?
Kassem: OK, we need to wait ‘til election day. However, as an observer, I don’t think that the media will be given much access to covering the elections.
Hilleary: What about wire services and foreign journalists?
Kassem: I don’t think anybody’s going to have privileges, foreign or local media. I think the government will try and keep them away from the actual voting process, as they are being very hostile with them right now about them covering the days running up to the elections, when any irregularities are practiced by the government.
Hilleary: I understand that there have been calls for a boycott of coverage. How many journalists do you feel will be refusing to cover the election?
Kassem: I don’t think that’s going to be the case. The whole media setup here hardly do [sic] any collective bargaining with the regime. So it’s not likely that they won’t cover. Maybe a few channels, a few papers, but on the whole, there will be coverage.
Hilleary: How much coverage can you have if you’re discouraged by the regime?
Kassem: Well, they’ll try to cover, okay? But they might go through difficult times doing that, and the regime will try and block them as much as possible.
Hilleary: And how is the regime blocking reporters?
Kassem: Well, I mean, access to polling stations has in the past been a problem to voters as well. So by having barricades around, making sure that only those they want in will be allowed in. They can keep the journalists out.
Hilleary: How different do you think this will be from 2005’s elections?
Kassem: I think it’s going to be far uglier, because in the past three elections or so, things started getting really ugly. Violence unseen before in Egyptian elections began to take place. So everybody is prepared, including some of the opposition candidates, to use violence.
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