It was an idea born of desperation. Ibrahim Issa, a prominent opposition journalist, was livid about the way Egypt’s government-owned media was covering the revolution. So he decided to launch a TV station of his own.
Normally, that would be impossible without approval from Egypt’s internal security service. But officials there were distracted by the protests in Tahrir Square. So with $300, some volunteers and a satellite frequency donated by a friend, Issa hit the airwaves.
Four months later, his Tahrir TV has millions of viewers. Issa, who had been arrested and harassed during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, is a symbol of the growing freedom of expression in this former one-party state.
“The idea of banning people from talking is over,” said the journalist, 46, sitting in the office of his other new venture, a newspaper called Tahrir.
Since the revolution, TV channels and newspapers have proliferated. People once shunned by the media — opposition politicians, Islamists, human rights activists — publish op-eds and appear on talk shows.
The new media freedom has its limits. Military authorities, who now run the country, have staunchly defended a longtime taboo on challenging them. They have imprisoned a blogger and questioned journalists who have criticized them in print or on the air.
But there is a new feistiness in the media and among activists that is serving as an important check on the power to censor.
“From the media side, there is a feeling that this is a point of no return,” said Lina Attalah, managing editor of the English-language version of Al-Masry Al-Youm, a major independent newspaper. “We also have to act as an interest group here, and get as much freedom as we can.”
In recent years, Issa has run several publications that were shut down by the government. He was part of a new wave of independent media, which provided a lively, sometimes sensationalistic alternative to the fawning state-owned newspapers and television. Nonetheless, before the revolution, independent journalists were often harassed, and they risked arrest if they went too far.
In 2008, Issa was sentenced to two months in prison for questioning Mubarak’s health. He eventually was pardoned. Last year, he was fired as editor of the weekly Al Dustour, which he founded in 1995 and was shut down by authorities at one point for “jeopardizing national unity.”
After the revolution, the government dropped the requirement that TV stations receive a security clearance. At least 20 new TV channels have launched or are in the works, including Tahrir and one called “25,” after the January date of the start of the revolution. Several others are run by religious groups — including the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-traditional Muslims known as Salafists.
The boom reflects the growing audience for news in this country of 80 million, which is facing an uncertain political future after 30 years of rule by the same man.
“You have turned from a time in which maybe one in 1,000 people was interested in politics to a time when you have 80 million politicians,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent human rights group.
Government-owned media have remained relatively cautious, even though Egypt’s interim government ousted the heads of state radio and TV and several editors associated with the old regime. But they are facing new challenges.
Recently, supporters of Mohamed ElBaradei, a top opposition politician and Nobel laureate, threatened to demonstrate after learning he had been kicked off a scheduled program on state-owned television. The network quickly reversed course.
“There’s radical change in that there is 90 percent freedom of speech. The big 10 percent is the obvious taboo” — the military, Bahgat said.
And the military isn’t giving up without a fight.
It is still illegal to “insult” the armed forces, which were widely hailed for backing the revolution. But with generals running the country — at least until elections scheduled for the fall — they are increasingly finding themselves the subject of aggressive reporting.
In March, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces sent a letter to media ordering them not to disseminate any news about the military without clearing it with them first. Weeks later, a military court sentenced a blogger, Maikel Nabil Sanad, to three years in prison for alleging that the army had tortured participants in a March demonstration.
The growing tensions between the generals and the journalists came to a head last month, when a popular blogger, Hossam al-Hamalawy, and two reporters were summoned by a military tribunal over a TV appearance in which they criticized alleged abuses by the armed forces.
Many feared the trio would be jailed. But the case drew extensive media coverage and an online campaign by Hamalawy’s supporters. In the end, the journalists were informed that the summons was just for a “coffee and chat,” Hamalawy later blogged.
“There was enough pressure. That was the only thing that got me off,” Hamalawy said in an interview.
Indeed, the military itself seems to be struggling to identify what is acceptable as it fills an unfamiliar role.
“Criticism must be focused only on the [military’s] political role, but no criticism of persons, figures or leaders . . . this is your army and you must show respect for it,” an unidentified military leader said recently during a phone call to a TV talk show.
On June 18, military prosecutors called in two other journalists — Rasha Azab, a reporter at the independent weekly al-Fagr, and its editor, Adel Mammouda — over an article about the army’s alleged use of torture and “virginity tests” on protesters detained in March.
“Journalists are trying to find where the new red lines are, and to define them. There is this push and pull now,” said Elijah Zarwan, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a research organization.
The tensions have been evident in consultations between the government and journalists and human rights activists over a new freedom of information act. The government’s draft law includes a long list of security-related subjects that would be exempt from disclosure.
“We have a lot of reservations” about the act, Attalah said. “But at least we have a space to fight in. That’s what’s different.”
Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.