Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Our railing media

Freedom of expression is sacrosanct, but so is getting the facts right, if in political matters we care about the results, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

 As fate would have it, my career took the shape of a triangle with an academic base and the two sides consisting, respectively, of media (journalism and television) and politics. Fate also decreed that this career would come to overlap two eras: the post-1952 order, which lasted 60 years from the July Revolution in 1952 to the outset of 2011, and the era that was ushered in by the 25 January Revolution. This latter has been variously described as “revolutionary” and a period of “Brotherhoodisation” — reference to an alleged Muslim Brotherhood drive to monopolise the state. In all events, the attributes are still in flux because change is still in progress and no one can tell how much of this change is taking the country forward or backward, or whether it is all about circling in place.

The post-25 January 2011 period has brought new faces, slogans and political parties. The general mood celebrates “revolution” rather than “moderation”. But so far the essence remains the same as before, with a modicum of difference here or there. The parliamentary quota reserved for workers and farmers is still intact. The “national” — by which is meant state-run — media continues as usual. Economic subsidisation holds its ground. Egypt’s regional role remains unchanged.

But perhaps the most salient feature that has carried over from the previous era is the regime’s attitude towards the media. Now, as before, the “authorities” are perpetually fuming at a written and televised press that rants and rails 24 hours a day, and they are driven to their wits’ ends by that accursed newcomer, the digital press, that has spread from computers to smartphones and tablets the size of those slates that children once used to scribble their lessons on in traditional kuttab schools but which are certainly faster, more dynamic, and better able to communicate with our fellow creatures on this good earth.

The authorities’ wrath against the media reached a new peak late last month, when Bassem Youssef, who hosts the satirical TV show Al-Bernameg (The Programme), was summoned for questioning on the charges of insulting the president and contempt for religion. Youssef was released the same day on bail of LE15,000, but the charges were not dropped and his case will continue to unfold between the settings of the prosecution and the courts. The arrest and charges against this television celebrity triggered a massive outcry at home and abroad in defence of freedoms of opinion and expression, inclusive of that genre of comedy that blends satire with political facts.

The arrest of Youssef reminded me of the case of journalist Ibrahim Eissa who, under the Mubarak regime, was also arrested on the charge of insulting the president (“contempt for religion” had not yet entered the Egyptian political lexicon) and sentenced to a year in prison. Eissa received an immediate presidential pardon. But the difference in outcome is not important here, because the subject at heart is the same. Today, as in the past, sweeping accusations that lack any fixed or objective criteria are being levelled at media figures and outlets, and are spreading damage and despair.

The irony is that the authorities in Egypt both past and present possessed a huge arsenal of heavy media tanks and artillery, and no small quantities of missiles and other types of projectiles as well. The government has at its fingertips state-owned media that include 28 television stations and dozens of radio stations. Not a single ministry or public organisation, let alone the cabinet, the presidency and their subsidiary offices, is without at least one website through which it can disseminate information and boast its accomplishments. One new feature of this new age is that the ruling party has its own mouthpiece, the Freedom and Justice newspaper, plus a host of sympathetic newspapers, as well as numerous sympathetic television channels, some directly owned by the Muslim Brotherhood and others belonging to various other shades of the broader Islamist trend.

Given this enormous media muscle at their disposal, the authorities’ wrath against and their inability to compete with some quarters of the media is not only surprising. It also suggests that the problem lies elsewhere: not in the media itself, but in the message.

I am a staunch supporter of freedoms of opinion and expression, and the press. This has always been my position and it remains unchanged. I support these freedoms even if they are sometimes marred by departures from internationally recognised codes of journalistic professionalism. After all, in the end, the journalist and media professional only have their pen (or keyboard), while the political authorities have a whole gamut of weapons, including the media arsenal mentioned above. So if a journalist or media personality goes beyond the pale, at most he will stir some commotion that will soon subside with the next piece of breaking news, while excesses in the exercise of authority broach the realm of despotism and tyranny, which dooms the futures of societies and nations.

There is no neutral ground between the authorities and the press. While one is sometimes forced to endure excesses on the part of the former, it is impossible to live without the freedoms of the latter. A free press and media has become a prerequisite of life in all civilised and democratic countries in the world today. As long as there exists a balance of power in universal access to the instruments and means, then the critical differentiating factors are the ability to convince and the issues that require convincing.

But perhaps the question is more complicated than that, and for both sides — the authorities and the media. Both are required to be open and frank, to tell the truth and present the facts, and to subscribe to the maxim that there are many sides to a single issue. Also, as long as we are speaking of human affairs, mistakes are to be expected and excesses are likely. In developed nations, “engagement” is essential. Naturally, one does not engage by rending one’s clothes or going to prison, but rather through serious discussions and dialogues, in the course of which issues are dismantled into their component parts and then reassembled in order to produce conceptions of the best way to handle them in light of such criteria as cost and benefit, popular support and potential international reaction.

Unfortunately, I fear that the situation in Egypt today is not so much about a division in the media and the press as it is about, firstly, a deep political divide, and secondly, the tendency to evade the need to face some hard and essential truths. These concern such crucial issues as the relationship between religion and the state, the relationship between poverty and the revolution, the centralisation of power in the capital and the non-centralisation of power in the provinces, and the problems of a riparian society that needs to look seaward. Handling all these issues must proceed from identifying the facts and accumulating the data which, when crunched and processed, become knowledge that, as they say, lightens the path to wisdom.

This process is the hard part. It is the part that is being overlooked by both the authorities and the media. I would also say that this applies not only to Egypt but also to all Arab countries, whether touched by revolution or still moderate and relatively stable.

During a recent news analysis programme on CBC, neither the veteran journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal nor the show’s anchor, the media luminary Lamis Al-Hadidi, were able to cite the GDPs of either Egypt or Israel. Much to my surprise, this lack of information did not prevent either from forging ahead with their analysis.

As the famous British prime minister Winston Churchill once said: “Get the facts first. You can distort them later.” Sadly, we just distort, with or without the facts.

 

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