AS EGYPT's now deposed president Hosni Mubarak was celebrating the fourth year of his presidency, he experienced another occasion on which he gave in to events around him. It was in late February 1985, after he had enthusiastically welcomed a decision by the International Press Institute (IPI) to hold its 24th general assembly in Cairo, the first time the IPI had ventured into an Arab country. Until then, it had held its annual meetings in countries with a free press.
But about 10 days before the conference was due to begin, members of IPI's executive board received calls from IPI headquarters in London advising them to hold off booking their flights to Cairo. The problem? Mubarak had discovered that among the delegates were an editor from SA and another from Taiwan. Egypt had broken relations with the two countries.
Mubarak was intent on asserting his power by maintaining to the IPI administration that all the IPI's members could come except the two from SA and Taiwan. I was the South African, editor of the weekly newsletter, Southern Africa Report, and the Taiwanese was Peter Wang, the editor of Taiwan's biggest daily, the United Daily News.
IPI's director, Peter Galliner, was equally adamant. IPI insisted that all its members had to be given entry to Egypt without restriction or there could be no conference. The argument had been going on for days, with Mubarak insisting the two must be barred.
About 10 days before the opening ceremony, to which Mubarak was invited to speak, Galliner devised a wily plan. He wrote a press statement, which described how the IPI had decided to cancel the conference in Cairo and move it to London because of Egypt's refusal to extend the invitation to all its members. He elaborated in the statement on the estimated loss in foreign exchange that Egypt would suffer and speculated on the bad publicity for Egypt that would be generated in the world's press.
He scribbled "draft" on the top of the document and left it lying on his bed in his hotel room, reasoning that the Egyptian secret police made daily visits to his room and they would come across the draft statement, make a copy of it and pass it on to higher authority.
The next day, executive board members received a call telling them to go ahead and book their flights to Cairo; the problem had been resolved. Galliner had received a call saying the government had dropped its objection and that all the delegates would be welcomed. It was quite clear that the security police had done their work and passed on the news that IPI was preparing to depart. Mubarak clearly did not relish the consequences. He backed down and gave instructions for the ban to be lifted.
When I arrived, I was given a special visa on a loose sheet of paper which was duly stamped with my arrival date and popped into my passport. When I left Cairo, the visa was removed, leaving no record in my passport of having visited the city. Wang received the same treatment.
At the opening, Galliner praised Mubarak for having opened the press to opposition viewpoints, though he pointed out that these were in weekly and fortnightly magazines and there were no dailies doing this. He saluted the move towards a developing free press in Egypt, but recent events show that whatever Mubarak was doing then was severely curtailed. The treatment of journalists by pro- Mubarak demonstrators showed no tolerance for press freedom.
Mubarak opened the conference and outlined his concept of journalism, one far removed from the crackdown on journalists and broadcasters as occurred recently in Cairo. He said: "A journalist is a reporter and an investigator who searches for the truth; he is therefore a writer of a sublime calling. He renders correct information accessible to readers."
He went on to express views still further removed from the recent events in Tahrir Square: "A journalist's writing is not his own, but the reader's. In the world of free press, the journalist and the reader are two sides of one coin who never differ on the fact that the freedom of expression of views should be secured by all."
The crowning irony of the occasion occurred during the customary handshaking welcome by the president to IPI's executive board. First in line was Hanna Semer, editor of Israel's Davar Daily. And she was followed by Wang and me, ahead of the rest of the board members.
- Louw, editor and publisher of Southern Africa Report, was a member of IPI's executive board from 1979 to 1987.