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Egypt's President Contradicts Himself on Press Freedom

Posted: 02/05/11 12:34 PM ET

From Reporters Without Borders/Amnesty International.

When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went before his nation last week to talk about the mounting wave of unrest sweeping through his country he made a point of stating that he was in favor of freedom of expression. But while the Egyptian president was delivering his statement on national (and international) television, his security forces continued to clamp down on Internet and cellular telecommunications in the country. So much for freedom of expression in Mubarak's new Egypt.

Then on January 31st, the Egyptian government, Mubarak's new government, which he had just appointed in a last-ditch effort to try and stave off his departure from power, decided to shut down Qatar-based Al-Jazeera's operations in Egypt, where the pan-Arab satellite TV channel has been providing round-the-clock coverage of the anti-government protests that began on January 25. And on Wednesday, CNN, BBC, Al-Arabiya and ABC crews were targeted by pro-Mubarak protesters while Belgian journalist Serge Dumont was beaten and is still held and accused of "spying."

Mr. Mubarak's behavior, that of saying one thing but then ordering his government to act differently reminds me of one of the more memorable scenes in the Hollywood classic Casablanca, when Capt. Renault (played by Claude Raines) is ordered by the Third Reich's Major Strasser to shut down Rick's Café. Capt. Renault asks on what grounds should he shut it down? The Nazi officer tells him to find one.

As Renault blows his whistle and orders everyone to leave the premises Rick (Humphrey Bogart) confronts him and asks on what grounds is he being shut down. Renault replies that he is "shocked, shocked," to hear that there is gambling going on here. But no sooner than he is finished delivering his line that the casino dealer walks up to Capt. Renault with his winnings, which the corrupt French official immediately pockets. Ergo President Mubarak's freedom of expression.

When Al Jazeera had to close, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said : "This totally archaic decision is in complete contradiction with President Hosni Mubarak's promise of 'democratic' measures (promised) on January 28." Julliard added on Wednesday in a statement from Paris after other news organization were targeted:

"We remind all parties that journalists are external observers who under no circumstances should be identified with one side or the other. These attacks seem to have been acts of revenge against the international media for relaying the protests calling for President Mubarak's resigning. They are also designed to silence journalists and gag news media."

Mubarak's actions in censuring press reports goes counter to the people's demands for greater freedom of expression.

The measures taken against Al Jazeera were announced January 31st by the government news agency, MENA, who reported that the minister of Information had ordered the suspension of operations of Al Jazeera, cancelling its license and withdrawing accreditation to all its staff in Egypt.

The 31st was the sixth consecutive day of anti-government protests as tens of thousands of demonstrators continued protest across Egypt, demanding the departure of President Mubarak, defying the curfew announced on January 29th. President Mubarak's announcement that he was firing his entire government failed to satisfy the crowds who insists that Mubarak must go.

The Egyptian government had shut down Internet and mobile phone networks days earlier, hoping to limit communication facilities used by the demonstrators. However, while the steps taken by the Egyptian government hampered the ability by protestors to exchange information it failed to completely deny them access to get their message out as some Internet users managed to find applications allowing them to circumvent the government's restrictions.

This is not the first time that Al Jazeera faces sanctions from an Arab government. The Qatar-based network often finds itself accused of biased reporting in the Arab world. The pan-Arab network had its operations in Baghdad curtailed in 2006 and similar actionswere directed against it in 2010 by Kuwaiti and Moroccan authorities.

The network's offices in the Palestinian West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus were attacked last week after Al Jazeera revealed that the Palestinian Authority had offered major concessions in the course of confidential negotiations with Israel, including concessions on Jerusalem's status and the return of Palestinian refugees. The PA's negotiators accused Al Jazeera of lying and distorting the facts.

Meanwhile in Egypt as the government braced itself for further protests and a country wide general strike, Mubarak's government continued its efforts to restrict Internet and telecommunications, a rather futile effort to censure free speech, an impossible task in this age of instant communications.

Perhaps what President Mubarak meant when he addressed the issue of free speech was that it was alright so long as it is his speech and his views being expressed.