By Shahira Amin* in Cairo
In recent days a series of controversial public service announcements aired on state-owned TV channels in Egypt, angering Egyptians and foreigners alike. The advertisements, which warn Egyptians against talking to foreigners “because they might be spies”, have been slammed for being “shallow” and inflammatory.
In one of the advertisements, a foreign man walks into a cafe and inconspicuously joins a group of young Egyptians at their table.
They go on to discuss Egypt’s current situation in front of the stranger — complaining about high prices, the gas shortage, and other social and economic problems plaguing the country.
They also tell the English-speaking stranger about a reported conspiracy against the army, which he immediately tweets to an unknown third party.
Sinister background music alerts viewers of an ominous threat, as the voiceover warns that “every word has a price” and that one word could “endanger a nation”.
In another advertisement, Egyptian job seekers are advised not to apply for jobs posted on job vacancy sites online.
“You never know who may use the information you post online and for what purpose”, cautions the advert.
Concerns that Ads May Restrict Freedom of Expression, Exacerbate Xenophobia
Both advertisements were broadcast intermittently over the past week on all state-run TV channels, as well as a few privately-owned channels, raising concerns that they may restrict freedom of expression and exacerbate xenophobia in the country.
Facebook user Mayssa Mokhtar expressed fear that “the TV campaign may pave the way for another crackdown by the state on foreign journalists covering the ongoing protests”.
Many turned to social networking sites to express their anger.
Pharmacist Mahmoud Nour wrote in a Facebook post that ”the commercials would not help the tourism industry — Egypt’s main foreign currency earner — which has already been dealt a blow by the political instability over the past year and a half.”
The advertisement has now been pulled from the air, but the campaign is not the first time that state-controlled media has issued warnings about the alleged danger posed by foreigners to Egypt.
During last year’s uprising, talk show hosts on state-run TV channels reportedly accused “foreign conspirators” of fomenting the unrest. Such accusations prompted attacks by angry protesters on foreign visitors and journalists attempting to cover protests in Tahrir Square.
The 11 February sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan by a mob of men near the Egyptian Museum sparked international outrage, but it was not an isolated incident.
Throughout the 18 days of last year’s uprising and protests since, many foreign journalists have faced both intimidation and suspicion over their coverage of unrest.
Accused of Being “Foreign Agents”, “Spies”
Many have complained of being beaten, chased away or accused of being “foreign agents” and “spies”. In most cases, attackers were Mubarak supporters or anti-regime protesters nervous about the increased presence of foreigners in Tahrir Square. At times, those targeting foreign journalists were policemen or security officers in plainclothes.
Last June’s arrest of American-Israeli law student Ilan Grapel, who was accused of being an Israeli spy, further fuelled anti-foreigner sentiments.
Photos of Grapel were published in local newspapers, and the state-owned Al-Ahram identified him daily as a “Mossad officer who was trying to sabotage the Egyptian revolution”.
Grapel was released four months later in a prisoner exchange with Israel, but the anti-foreigner wave did not subside.
Last November, reports of USA-made teargas being used by security forces on protesters sparked another surge of attacks on foreign journalists.
When in trouble, the military junta points the finger at the ‘foreign invisible hand’ blaming it for all our woes
More conspiracy theories swirled in the wake of arrests earlier this year of 16 Americans (among a group of 43 NGO workers) accused of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country.
State-controlled media used the arrests to play on the fears of uneasy Egyptians, with one front page article titled, “American funding aims to spread anarchy in Egypt”.
It’s worked before when the ruling military generals allowed activists to vent their fury on the Israeli Embassy. Why wouldn’t it work now?
On Friday, Egyptian pro-democracy activists were back in Tahrir Square protesting the acquittal of six security chiefs accused of ordering the killings of protesters during last year’s uprising.
Their demands also included calls for a new election, and the formation of a civil presidential council to replace the ruling military regime next month.
Several of those protesters described the new TV commercials as “another attempt by the military junta to stop free expression and to divert attention away from what is happening in Tahrir Square”.
“It is the same old tactics once again,” lamented Ibrahim Saleh, a 35 year-old civil engineer.
Noha Alaa, another protester and tour guide, agreed that such claims were a distraction from the problems facing the country.
*Shahira Amin is a well know Egyptian journalist and analyst. Currently she is Senior Anchor/Correspondent, Nile TV, and CNN contributor. Amin resigned from NileTV in an open protest against the biased, pro-regime coverage of the Egyptian revolution, which she actively joined in Tahrir Square. Shahira Amin is known for her unwavering defence of freedom, democracy, social justice and gender equality. Her article was first published by UNCUT Index on censorship. Go to Original.
**Picture: “Air Marshal” Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last primer minister and current military-backed presidential candidate. Photo: Shourouk daily.