The Cairo cafe is packed with patrons in stitches as television host Bassem Youssef fires his caustic criticism at President Mohamed Morsi, but post-revolution media freedoms have proved no laughing matter for some.
Youssef’s razor sharp wit, delivered on his weekly programme Albernameg (The Show), has spared few public figures, least of all President Morsi and members of his Muslim Brotherhood.
But the heart surgeon turned comedian who enjoys a massive following has now joined the ranks of several colleagues in the media who face charges of insulting the president.
The soaring number of legal complaints against journalists has cast doubt on Morsi’s commitments to freedom of expression — a key demand of the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Prominent rights lawyer Gamal Eid told state-owned Ahram online that there have been four times as many lawsuits for “insulting the president” in Morsi’s first 200 days in office than during the entire 30 years that Mubarak ruled.
During his election campaign, Morsi pledged to guarantee media freedom, and vowed “not to stop anyone from writing or ban any opinion” during his tenure.
But in recent months, the lawsuits have multiplied.
The presidency accused veteran journalist and television show host Mahmud Saad and his guest psychologist Manal Omar of insulting the president after she said Morsi who served jail time was suffering from psychological problems.
Morsi, a former senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, had several stints in jail under Mubarak.
The legal complaints are a “a very dangerous sign that the presidency believes freedom of opinion and expression must be restricted. The current regime is unwilling to deal with criticism,” said Emad Mubarak, who heads the Association for Freedom and Thought of Expression.
“It seems that the presidency and its loyalists are on a campaign to scare journalists in order to have a soft and obedient media,” he told AFP.
According to human rights lawyers, under Mubarak, the presidency had never officially filed a legal complaint against a journalist.
But lawyers with ties to Mubarak’s legal team filed the suits, such as in the case against outspoken journalist Ibrahim Eissa, accusing him of spreading rumours about Mubarak’s health.
Eissa received a jail sentence in 2008 but was eventually pardoned by Mubarak.
The presidency denied it was targeting the media and said it “welcomed all constructive criticism and is against banning any opinion but when it comes to accusations against the president. The matter must go through a legal investigation to prove whether the claims are true or not.”
Presidency spokesman Yasser Ali insisted that the legal complaints filed targeted news that is “entirely made up.”
“Freedom in the new Egypt must be according to the law,” he said.
The new Islamist-drafted constitution does not explicitly ban the jailing of journalists for their writings, and says that newspapers can be shut down or confiscated if there is a legal ruling.
Under the penal code, people can be jailed for up to three years for insulting the president or religions. But the wording is vague and can easily be manipulated, critics say.
“The problem is in the laws that allow for journalists to be subject to a criminal prosecution,” said rights activist Negad al-Borei, who believes the issue leads to heavy self-censorship.
Earlier this month, the independent daily ran a a spoof issue entitled “Al-Watan under the Brotherhood”, with pictures of its editor and journalists sporting Islamic beards and with articles praising Morsi.
“We came up with the idea because of all the pressures faced by the media,” said the paper’s editor-in-chief Magdi al-Gallad.
When it comes to media freedom, “Morsi’s first six months are much worse than all of Mubarak’s era. Mubarak was more politically savvy in dealing with the media,” Gallad said.
The legal cases have also raised concerns abroad.
“We strongly oppose any kind of legal restrictions on freedom of expression, and we continue to urge the Egyptian government to respect freedom of expression,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters during a recent briefing.