By Reem Abdellatif and Matt Negrin
CAIRO – The U.S. Ambassador to Egypt stressed the importance of freedom of speech in a new Egypt aiming for democracy in an address Monday to journalists, heads of media organizations and online activists.
“The government must guarantee the press its freedom and in exchange the press must report the truth,” said Ambassador Anne W. Patterson, speaking at a gathering hosted by GlobalPost and the Open Hands Initiative titled “From Tahrir Square to the Ballot Box: Egyptians and Americans Reporting on a New Egypt.”
“The January 25 revolution did not just usher in dramatic political change, it also entirely reshaped the entire media landscape,” Patterson added. “Journalists of all ages and backgrounds are valued voices in a democracy; they encourage dialogue, constructive debate, and transparency.”
“Everyday as I skim the newspapers, or catch a television segment on Egyptian TV, I am reminded of the lively discussions that journalists are facilitating.”
The dinner at the Cairo Marriott was the culminating event of a 10-day seminar and reporting workshop for 17 top young Egyptian and American journalists. The team of ‘reporting fellows’ was pulled together by GlobalPost and Open Hands Initiative to report on the challenges Egypt faces as it heads into its first round of parliamentary elections after a popular uprising against the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak ended his 30-year rule.
Open Hands Initiative founder Jay Snyder told the group, “One lesson the course of events in Egypt has shown the world is the power of not only governments but of ordinary people to shape their own destinies, both at home and abroad.”
During her speech to GlobalPost ‘reporting fellows,’ senior BBC presenter and special correspondent Lyse Doucet had a special message for Egyptian fellows.
“You have a right and a duty to report the truth,” Doucet said. “And not even the Egyptian army can take that away from you.”
Her words were met with resounding applause.
Patterson’s remarks extolling the values of a free press are set against a backdrop in Egypt of heavy crackdowns by the ruling military council on individual journalists and media organizations reporting on recent human rights violations, the military’s escalation of violence against peaceful protesters, or any issue that relates to the armed forces.
Articles under Egypt’s current press law state the media shall not publish or broadcast any material that would “disturb public harmony” or “entice hatred” towards the government. After Egypt’s elects a new parliament in a three-stage election slated to begin November 28, the government will set out to write a new constitution and it remains to be seen if press laws will be changed. In an interview with GlobalPost after the event, Patterson was asked how her remarks stood up against the reality on the ground of the military-imposed media restrictions. Patterson said she disagreed with that perception.
“I don’t think that’s right,” she said. “I think what you have is more visibility on what’s taking place here than what you had in the past.”
But as political analysts frequently point out, post-revolutionary Egypt is still from far having an open and transparent government. Each year, when it comes to the budget of the armed forces, the military announces only one figure. The armed forces do not disclose details regarding their financial plans, expenditures, or aid that it receives from other nations, including the United States.
“Nothing is more important than budget transparency, and that’s going to be up to a new parliament that are going to report on the budget not only of the military but of the intelligence community,” Patterson added.
Despite heavy censorship imposed on Egyptian journalists by the ruling military council, the ambassador said she remained optimistic, hoping that the government would revoke such laws in the future.
“We hope the new parliament will put in place new laws that provide for freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, that’s why [Egypt] is having elections,” she said.
Patterson said she believes these laws will change when a new, civilian government is put in place.
However, state-owned media, which is the most watched in Egypt, is often seen as a mouthpiece for government officials and younger journalists inspired by the events of the uprisings are sometimes kept from entering its spectrum.
Looking to the Egyptian journalist in the room, Patterson stressed that young Egyptian journalists should “keep pressing” in order to have equal participation.
“I am reasonably optimistic, because there’s a huge amount of energy behind this process,” Patterson said. “I think there’s a lot more transparency than there used to be.”
But the ambassador admitted that the Egyptian media dwells in a culture of fear from rulers who have the power to control what is printed and the reporting of rumors that fuels anxiety and sometime violence. She grew animated when talking about two recent rumors — that the United States was behind recent violence against Coptic Christians, and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said American troops would be sent to Egypt.
“That was a downright lie. That was a downright fabrication, a lie,” she said of the Clinton rumor. “We couldn’t figure out what was motivating this. Was it just incompetence by the press?”
Recently, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces has begun investigating NGOs and activists that it accuses of being funded by “foreign elements.” SCAF has used state-run media as a mouthpiece to get out that message. When the Egyptian public hears “foreign elements,” many think of the United States and start to fear American interference.
“The United States is proud of our support for independent organizations,” Patterson said. “We don’t fund political parties. We do try and fund people that, for instance, [work toward] voter education, NGOs or training, job creation and [other parts] of civil society.”
Before the interview, GlobalPost reporting fellows heard remarks from Ayman Nour, a presidential candidate who only the day before had seen the courts uphold the sentence on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges against him by the Mubarak regime for forging signatures to form his party.
As a result of the court ruling, Nour would be prevented by election rules for registering as a candidate. But last night Nour vowed to continue running for president. He told fellows he believes the ruling military council, who he says has been adopting Mubarak’s tactics, wants to force him away from the political scene.
Patterson told Nour that the United States was disappointed that he had been denied the chance to run in the upcoming elections. She said in her interview with GlobalPost that the United States would support a pardon for Nour.
“I was under the impression that we had a revolution in Egypt, but it seems I was wrong,” Nour said. “My sentencing won’t change anything in the role I play as a politician. Our [al-Ghad] party will continue what we started.”