Egypt's military rulers have frozen new licenses for private satellite TV stations and are taking steps against broadcasters they say are inciting violence, restrictions activists say harken to the crackdown on freedom of expression under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak's consecutive governments had sent journalists to jail for reporting on the president's health and other sensitive issues, and managed a web of security agents who meddled in news rooms. During the protests that ousted Mubarak, authorities banned broadcasts by the Arabic and English language channels of the pan-Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera and revoked the press credentials of all of its journalists.
Communication Minister Osama Heikal told reporters late Wednesday the satellite licensing decision stems from concerns about violence being incited and about what he called an increasingly chaotic media scene. He said the freeze was temporary, but didn't say when it would end, and did not say how many pending requests were affected.
Heikal also said he had designated authorities to take legal measures against satellite stations that incite sedition and violence. He did not name any stations or said would penalties might be imposed.
The moves come as the military rulers face rising criticism that they are moving too slowly toward democracy. Activists have called a rally critical of the military council for Friday, the first in a month, and dubbed it "Correcting the course."
Egypt's prosecutor general office said Thursday it has officially informed media outlets of the court order banning any reporting or publishing of the testimony of Egypt's military ruler and four other senior current and former officials during hearings next in the trial of Mubarak. The 83-year-old Mubarak is on trial on charges of complicity in the deaths of protesters, a charge that could bring a death penalty. Violating the ban on reporting on the trial is punishable by up to three years in prison, lawyers said.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took charge after Mubarak stepped down in February, promising to hold elections and hand over power to civilians within six months.
But seven months later, the military council has yet to announce a specific date for elections; has passed a complicated election law which many say would preserve the power of Mubarak allies in the new parliament; and has interrogated and detained its critics, while trying thousands of civilians before military courts.
Human rights lawyer Gamal Eid says the decisions announced Wednesday allows the military council to illegally limit criticism in the media in the run-up to parliamentary elections, now expected in November.
"This is contrary to what we have been expecting, what we need," Eid said. "It is no different than decisions taken by Mubarak."
Heikal said the military council wants to manage broadcasting that "agitates citizens and incites violence."
He said the government and military council respect "freedom of the media and press, but without infringing on social morality and national principles."
He urged journalists to be "accurate and precise."
Eid questioned Heikal's plans to take legal measures against stations accused of inciting sedition.
"What does sedition mean? Is it religious, or is basically any form of criticism considered seditious?" said Eid. "My assessment is this is related to rising voices of criticism against the military council's management."
Despite Mubarak-era attempts to muzzle expression, Egypt had a vibrant media scene that grew increasingly critical of Mubarak and his policies in the months before the longtime leader was forced to step down in the wake of widespread popular protests.
Following the uprising, new private papers and satellite stations have mushroomed, many of which were founded by government critics and protest supporters. Many old regime figures also started in new TV stations, as have Islamist groups, which were tightly regulated by the Mubarak regime. Eid said at least eight new satellite stations have already been registered and 11 were awaiting licensing.