Geopolitics

Egypt: When The Mouthpiece Of The Regime Stops Singing Along

Journalists from Egyptian state media are turning against their bosses. What it means for Mubarak’s chances for survival.

Documenting the revolution in Cairo
Documenting the revolution in Cairo

CAIRO - Held in the lobby of the Egyptian Journalists' Union office, the meeting Monday was meant to be a time for mourning. Members of the institution, a regime stronghold, had planned to honor Ahmed Mahmoud, a journalist for the Al-Ahram group, a government media mouthpiece, who was killed during the recent crackdown of the Egyptian popular uprising. But the meeting quickly turned into an attempted coup.

When Makram Mohammed Ahmed, the Union leader came to pay his respects to the victim's family, he was roundly booed. It was a sign that even regime strongholds are starting to totter. "The governmental press has started its own revolution," says Samer Soliman, a political analyst who also worked for the Al-Ahram group. "In all these institutions, the powers of change are mobilizing. Regime strongmen in the press will fall eventually. We won't have to wait for the elections."

Mahmoud worked for a general news publication called Ta'aoun (Cooperation). According to his widow, on January 29, the 39-year-old was on his office balcony, using his cell phone to film the clashes taking place in front of the Interior Ministry, when a sniper shot him. "He was shot once in the head," says Ines Abdel Halim, another reporter.

The same day, union members, including many Al-Ahram reporters were effectively becoming dissidents by publishing a statement in support of the protesters' demands. The statement was also a direct attempt to undermine union leader Ahmed, a prominent figure of the ruling National Democratic Party and Hosni Mubarak's biggest champion, whose loyalty had earned him a seat at the Majlis As-Shoura, the Egyptian Senate.

"Since the beginning of the uprising, Makram (Mohammed Ahmed) has de facto closed the union," says Karim Yehya, who signed the statement. "There are no more meetings, no cafeteria, no Internet. The union didn't even say something when foreign reporters were attacked."

Unlike Ibrahim Nafie, Al-Ahram's former boss, who led the union for a while with persisting rumors of corruption, Ahmed, who is also a columnist for the daily newspaper, is regarded as a relatively good journalist. "In the government style, he's the most respectable," says an Al-Ahram reporter, who spoke under condition of anonymity.

But his professionalism stops at the doorsteps of Arab leaders' palaces. In April 2010, he was attending a conference organized by the Union of Arab Journalists as the organization's secretary general. At the conference, Tunisia's since deposed President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was awarded a prize for his role in defending freedom of the press.

When the Egyptian revolution started, he showed signs of understanding the youth's demands, but refused to question the President. On February 1, just minutes before Mubarak announced he wouldn't be running for a new term, Ahmed publicly said: "the right thing to do is defend the President."

But the era of automatic obedience is over. Defections are increasingly common. Manal Agrama, a reporter at a culture magazine tied to the Interior Ministry, left her job to join the Tahrir square protesters. "Two weeks off and my boss never dared to call me," she says proud of her audacity. Pressured by the competition, Al-Ahram is revisiting its vocabulary: the word "looter" has disappeared and replaced by the word "revolution".

In the broadcast media, even more prone to pro-regime reports than their print counterparts, anger is also rising. Shahira Amin, deputy chief editor for the national TV, resigned, fed up with the gap between reality and her channel's reports.

"Before getting hired by the state media, reporters must get the OK from the secret services. The Union transformed them into the Mubarak clan's personal PR firm!" says Khaled Daoud, who used to work at Al-Ahram and is now in New York as a correspondent for an Arabic Channel.

When the elevator opened in the journalists' union building and Ahmed came out, the slogans were the same as those heard on Tahrir square: "Erhal!" (Get out!), "Battel!" (Void!), "Barra!" (Out!). "We will get his resignation, like Mubarak's resignation," says Karim Yehya. "All the leaders of the state media will be brought to trial."

After five long minutes of shoving and booing, a very angry Ahmed had to retreat back to his office. Later, the journalists' march for Ahmed Mahmoud, the Egyptian press' martyr, took place in the streets of Cairo. It was the first time in memory that the police hadn't guarded one of their marches. In journalism, like in politics, victory may still be far away, but things will never be the same.

Listen to a related audio report in French

Photo - Ahmad Hammoud

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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