CAIRO- A media crackdown in the first month of Egyptian Islamist president’s rule has raised fears Mohamed Morsi is moving to stifle criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This week, formal accusations by state prosecutors were filed against two journalists, while an issue of the newspaper al-Dostour was confiscated by the state's censorship unit - disappointing those who believed last year's overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak would lead to greater media freedom.
Morsi, who resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood when he was elected in June, saying he wanted to represent all Egyptians, has also named Salah Abdel Maqsood, a former colleague from the Islamist group, as information minister.
"The Brotherhood's recent actions against the media are harsh and unacceptable and tell us that we are going backwards and that things are managed the same way they were during Mubarak's time," rights activist Gamal Eid said.
The United States said on Thursday it was "very concerned" about freedom of the press in Egypt after authorities moved to put on trial two critics of new President Mohamed Morsi.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the legal actions ran counter to the spirit of last year's revolution, in which Egyptians took to the streets and toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak.
"We are very concerned by reports that the Egyptian government is moving to restrict media freedom and criticism in Egypt," Nuland told reporters.
"Freedom of the press, freedom of expression are fundamental tenets of vibrant, strong democracies. They are part and parcel of what the Egyptian people went into the streets for," she said.
"We join the Egyptian people in expecting that their new government will support and extend freedom of the press. So this is something that we're watching closely," she said.
Nuland specifically criticized Egypt for actions against the small independent newspaper Al-Dustour and the Al-Faraeen channel. Both outlets have ardently criticized Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Al-Dustour's editor, Islam Afifi, will face trial on August 23 on charges of spreading false news and inciting disorder, according to state media.
Tawfiq Okasha, the host of a talk show critical of Morsi on Al-Faraeen, will go on trial on September 1 and the channel, which he owns, has already been stopped from broadcasting.
Al-Faraeen TV channel is privately owned by Okasha, a strong opponent of Morsi and Islamists. Okasha had previously said in one of his talkshows that Mursi and his group "deserve to get killed".
The Brotherhood has repeatedly denied any intention to censor opinion, saying it wants only to stop media reports which might incite violence or unrest, or which personally insult the president.
"Those who filed the complaints against the journalists with the public prosecutor are not all from the Brotherhood. There were also ordinary people upset about the disgusting insults that some media have been publicizing," Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said.
A Brotherhood lawyer also filed a complaint on Wednesday with a state prosecutor, accusing three prominent editors of Egyptian dailies including Afifi of insulting Morsi.
"I accused them of insulting the president and spreading false information that could destroy the state and create panic among the people," lawyer Ismail al-Washahy said. "Most of what they published had nothing to do with media but were pure insults with no proof," he added.
The issue of Al-Dustour newspaper that was banned ran on its front page a long list of accusations against the Brotherhood. It said the group was leading Egypt to "its worst decades ... filled with killing and bloodshed."
Afifi accused the Brotherhood of trying to stifle dissent. "It is an orchestrated campaign against the media by the Muslim Brotherhood. They want to silence any opposition to their policies," Al-Ahram online news website quoted him as saying.
An earlier issue of Al-Dustour released on June 21, before the results of the presidential elections were announced, ran a front-page article accusing the Brotherhood of planning a "massacre in Egypt" if Morsi lost.
The newspaper was bought three years ago by the Wafd Liberal party, a party whose critics said allowed itself to be used as a "friendly opposition" under Mubarak while the Brotherhood was officially banned.
Many Egyptians were upset with the media after the revolution which toppled Mubarak, saying it had misunderstood the responsibility that comes with media freedom. Some said journalists had often crossed the line in making personal insults and accusations without proof.
However, many critics are asking for a mechanism to implement a code of ethics, rather than taking criminal action against journalists.
"There are certainly violations in the media, but there are also ways to punish journalists other than dragging them to courts or prisons," rights activist Eid said.
Three Egyptian columnists including prominent novelist Youssef El-Qaeed said earlier this month their columns had been removed by a new committee of editors used to supervise state-run newspapers for including anti-Brotherhood opinions.
The editors were chosen by the upper house of parliament, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
Others left their columns empty in protest at the selection of the new editors.
"This white space... is in protest against the Muslim Brotherhood's conquest over the newspapers and media outlets that belong to the Egyptian people," columnist Gamal Fahmy wrote on the top of his empty column in al-Tahrir newspaper on August 9.