Geopolitics

Press Crackdown In Egypt, As Battle Of Ideas And Information Rages On

Analysis: In some way, one full year after the Jan. 25 revolution began, the same standoff is at play between a military-led establishment and a grassroots popular movement. And controlling the message, and the media, is as central as ever to each camp.

The anniversary of Jan. 25 is approaching (Lilian Wagdy)
The anniversary of Jan. 25 is approaching (Lilian Wagdy)
Sharif Abdel Kouddous

CAIRO - The war of information in Egypt — one that has been at the heart of this revolution since its inception — is escalating.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the institutions it rules over, are making twin use of a fully compliant state media apparatus to demonize the protest movement and champion SCAF policies while intensifying a crackdown on dissent, attacking journalists and raiding civil society organizations.

Grassroots organizers have taken to the streets to transform public spaces across the country into forums that expose military abuses while continuing to use social media to foster growing discontent against the SCAF and push the boundaries of dissent within established private media outlets.

The latest escalation in this long-running media tug of war began last month, during clashes on Qasr al-Aini Street in downtown Cairo between protesters and the military that left at least 17 people dead and hundreds injured, marking the first sustained street battle involving army soldiers since the revolution began.

During the clashes, military forces assaulted and detained journalists, destroyed and confiscated media equipment and targeted news outlets. While much footage was lost in the army raids, the violent suppression of the protests was nevertheless captured on video and widely broadcast on private television stations and the internet. The notorious image of a young woman being dragged by two soldiers and stomped on by a third, her abaya pulled over her head to expose her stomach and bra, made headlines across the world.

At a televised news conference in the midst of the clashes, SCAF member Major General Adel Emara denied any wrongdoing, claiming the military "exercises a level of self-restraint that others envy." He blamed the violence on provocateurs executing a systematic plan to topple the government and accused the media of "helping sabotage the state." To back up his claims, Emara played video footage of people throwing Molotov cocktails and — in a surreal presentation — of children "confessing" that they were paid to attack the military.

In response, activists launched a campaign they called "Askar Kazeboon" (Lying Officers) to expose violations by the army against protesters to the wider public. Using portable video screening equipment, organizers have been traveling to districts across the capital and to cities around the country setting up screens in public squares and sidewalks — even once projecting video on the wall of the Supreme Court — to air footage that clearly shows the army brutally beating and shooting at protesters interlaced with the SCAF's denial of any wrongdoing.

As the first anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution approaches, the military council appears to be tightening its grip on any expressions of dissent, including highly-publicized raids of at least seven civil society groups by public prosecution officials backed by armed security forces. Files and computers were hauled away as part of a campaign by the transitional government against NGOs accused of receiving foreign funding. While fitting nicely into the SCAF's months-long narrative of a foreign plot to destabilize Egypt, the local NGOs targeted had also been a thorn in the side of the SCAF, including one that works to promote accountability and transparency in the military budget.

A year after the revolution began, the battle of information and ideas is as fierce as ever.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo.

Read the full story at Al-Masry Al-Youm

Photo - Lilian Wagdy

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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

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

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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