The Egyptian Journalists’ Union has accused the government of cracking down on media critical of authorities after two popular talk shows were closed down.
The closures come during a sensitive time for Egypt with parliamentary elections slated for November, less than two months away and constant speculation about 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak’s health.
“There is an organized attack on media freedom in Egypt especially in light of the approaching parliamentary elections,” the union said.
Egypt’s media, especially television, were tightly controlled in the past and restricted to positive coverage of government activities. But an explosion of privately owned satellite stations over the past five years has brought programming that has pushed government boundaries when discussing politics.
The union’s statement said that outspoken editor Ibrahim Eissa was pulled off his talk show without explanation and the 12-year-old program “Cairo Today” was also shut down. Both were broadcast on private television networks.
“This is no coincidence,” said Mohammed Abdel Qudous, the head of the union’s freedoms committee. “And as for the rest of the programs and talk shows, the owners were given orders to tone down.”
Egyptian Minister of Communications Anas el-Fiqqi said the closure of Orbit TV’s “Cairo Today” had no political dimension and was only because the network had not paid its bills.
Orbit TV’s Amr Adeeb acknowledged that there had been an “administrative misunderstanding” but pointed out that the network had since paid all its bills and the ban has remained.
“We have been operating in Cairo for 12 years. What has changed?” he asked.. “Does the voice of ‘Cairo Today’ need to be toned down? I have no answer.”
Media watchdogs say growing uncertainty over Egypt’s political future has resulted in a tightening of the once relatively open space for media in the country.
“The independent media is always walking on a tightrope, trying to figure out for themselves what might pass and which might not,” said Bahey Eddin Hassan, head of Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies. “There are unseen and unknown red lines.”
The first signs of a crackdown came in early September when private and opposition newspapers were ordered to pull reports of a poster campaign supporting the powerful intelligence chief Omar Suleiman for president.
Journalists and editors were barred from writing about the story in subsequent issues and the posters were removed from the streets.
The question of who will succeed Egypt’s long-time ruler has gained added urgency since the elder Mubarak underwent surgery.
Mubarak has not yet announced whether he will run for a sixth term in the 2011 presidential elections, and his 46-year-old son Gamal has been a rising force in Egyptian politics since 2000. — Sapa-AP