Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Media muddle

In today’s polarised social and political landscape, Egypt’s media has been blamed for abandoning objectivity and even for inciting violence, writes Gihan Shahine

Egypt
Egypt
Al-Ahram Weekly

'See, people with power understand exactly one thing: violence'

– Noam Chomsky


In any democratic system, it is normal and healthy that people hold different political viewpoints. But when these differences develop into verbal or physical violence many agree that something must be wrong.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group, and you are no more than a mask for terrorism,” shouted leftist activist Abdel-Halim Kandil at another guest, Islamist lawyer Montasser Al-Zayat, on a popular talk show on the Mehwar TV channel.

“You are obscene, and you only claim that because you have grudges against Islam,” Al-Zayat shouted back. Al-Zayat then lost his temper, splashing the other guest with a cup of water.

Viewers were introduced to this fight during a recent talk show on the popular Al-Mehwar channel discussing the war on terror in the Sinai Peninsula. After the altercation, the presenter announced a break for advertising.

CBC talk-show host Dina Abdel-Rahman had to do the same when an Interior Ministry official lost his temper on air, saying that the new anti-protest law would “be imposed with shoes” — a humiliating expression that implies the use of force in imposing the new law despite the public uproar.

“Now we have to take a break to put an end to this ‘shoe’ talk,” Abdel-Rahman countered.

Switching channels might help, but not for long. “When the state fights terrorism, we must put human rights to one side,” Youssef Al-Husseini, an ONTV talk-show presenter, told his audience in a matter-of-fact tone.

Those who fall into line with this view may nod their approval, while those who do not can just switch off. But is it the role of a TV presenter to guide his audience to one side of an argument? What should the role of the host be? The label that appears on TV screens of “fighting terrorism” perhaps sums things up, this proclaiming that there is little or no space for any other argument at the moment due to pressing “national reasons.”

Welcome to Egypt’s 2013 media, where talk shows have been turned into war zones, where television presenters and anchors have been transformed into “political activists”, or, in the words of prominent journalist Hani Shukrallah, into “overzealous preachers shouting harangues from their various pulpits”, and where guests break loose on air shouting and calling names at anyone holding a different opinion.

There is almost a consensus among media experts that almost all local and international media outlets seem to have abandoned their objectivity recently, firing up the public on one side of the argument and deepening Egypt’s state of polarisation, sometimes even possibly provoking violence.

Prominent political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal was recently quoted as lamenting that “the Egyptian people need the truth, and they are not getting it.”

 

INCITING VIOLENCE? The current state of the country’s media may be seen as the reflection of the unprecedented spiral of political violence and polarisation that has been gripping the country since the military ouster of former Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July following the 30 June protests.

“Egyptian society is suffering from deep rifts, creating a fertile soil for such biased coverage,” notes Cairo University media professor Mahmoud Khalil. “The media, after all, reflects reality,” he added.

A sort of life-and-death confrontation has erupted since 30 June between the pro-Morsi camp — mostly Islamists and members of Egypt’s 80-year-old Muslim Brotherhood — and an anti-Brotherhood camp that includes wide sections of society and almost all state organs, most notably the military and the security corps.

“A contest of this nature might well put the best journalism — the most rooted in sound tradition and institutional sophistication — to a harsh test,” Shukrallah noted.

This contest has also resulted in a spiral of bloodshed on both sides. On 14 August, the military and police forcibly dispersed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, killing hundreds in what the international NGO Human Rights Watch called “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.”

According to the Geneva-based group Amnesty International, “between 14 and 18 August at least 1,089 people were killed, many due to the use of excessive, grossly disproportionate and unwarranted lethal force by the security forces.”

The bloodshed soon catalysed a spiral of violence across the country. A spate of attacks on churches, police stations and military personnel, especially in the Sinai Peninsula, ensued, killing tens of security personnel. The involvement of Islamists in the unrest has allowed the government to cast the events as a “war on terror”, stoking fears that Egypt may see a return to the militant violence of the 1990s.

Almost all local channels have been echoing this rhetoric, in what they see as their “nationalist mandate” to do so.

“The state media and several privately owned Egyptian channels… are all singing the same chorus of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ [SCAF] version of what has and is still taking place in Egypt since 30 June,” noted journalist and blogger Gigi Ibrahim on OpenDemocracy.com.

Many observers have been particularly critical of the variation of the badge of “fighting terrorism” that has been appearing on almost all Egypt’s local TV channels. “Think of the American mainstream media in the aftermath of 9/11 and you might get a general idea of the state of the Egyptian equivalent since the 30 June Revolution against Muslim Brotherhood rule — allowing, that is, for less sophistication and a considerably greater measure of crudity,” Shukrallah wrote on Ahram Online.

Since 30 June, many commentators agree that Egypt’s media producers have been aiming to discredit the patriotism of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. A dominant tone in the local media, both state and privately owned, has tended to vilify the Islamists and their supporters and portray them as “terrorists”, “fascists” and “traitors”.

This kind of “verbal violence”, in the words of political scientist Amr Hamzawy, has been dominating media discourse in the press as well as on the satellite television channels and social media.

Khalil explained that this kind of “hate rhetoric”, which he insists has been taken from a prevailing Islamist discourse under Morsi, could be acceptable if it represented the genuine opinion of the TV guests.

“However, TV presenters should remain neutral and give an equal platform to guests in the other camp, which has not been the case since 30 June,” Khalil said. “Presenters are giving us headaches with their views and Brotherhood members or supporters are never allowed to appear.”

Instead, whoever opposes acts of violence against the Brotherhood, or their exclusion from political life, is attacked as being “a sleeper cell” or “fifth columnist” and someone who lacks “patriotism.” Journalists who report positively on pro-Morsi demonstrations have reportedly “been put under pressure and several arrests have taken place,” according to the German-based international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

ONTV talk-show presenter Reem Maged recently told Al-Shorouk that she had refused to go on air [she has been off the screens since 30 June] when she was told that she had to agree on “a certain formula” for what would be said on her show.

Maged said “the channel changed its policy from being in the opposition [as was the case under Morsi] into being part of the regime for reasons related to national security and interests.” For Maged, however, “freedom” rather than toeing the government line is the way out of the current stalemate.

Khalil comments that “all those who curb media freedom under religious or so-called national pretexts are only putting an ethical veil over unethical practices. Bias and hiding the truths are unethical practices.”

The pan-Arab TV channel Al-Jazeera has also lost much of its credibility in Egypt as a result of its being seen as the mouthpiece of the Brotherhood and streaming events and allegedly pre-selecting guests who will speak in the group’s favour. Six reporters have reportedly resigned for just that reason. Al-Jazeera’s Cairo office was raided, with journalists being detained and two remaining in prison, and the office was later closed for allegedly “inciting violence and chaos.”

Observers charge that the Muslim Brotherhood has also “consistently reported news disproven or unverified by independent media outlets and human-rights groups,” according to Ibrahim. In the meantime, Khalil said that “people can hardly forget the Islamists’ hate messages to the opposition and all the threats of bombings and civil war should Morsi be ousted before he was in fact ousted on 30 June.”

At least four Islamist and pro-Morsi satellite channels, including Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr and the Brotherhood-owned Misr25, were closed down by the authorities after Morsi’s ouster for having allegedly incited violence. Many have charged that the religious channels adopted an extreme discourse that portrayed the opposition to Morsi as “infidels”, “traitors” and “fulul” [remnants of the old regime].

“All Egypt’s mass-media outlets, both private and state-owned, are clearly biased at the moment,” said Sarah Hartmann, head of the EU Middle-East Forum, which has been closely following media reports in Egypt. “It’s the season for passionate bias, bizarre conspiracy theories, ‘deep state’ propaganda, and a virtual collapse of journalistic standards,” said Shukrallah.

 

CASES IN POINT: Critics have charged that both the state and privately owned media outlets have provided little or no coverage of the breakup of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda Square sit-ins that left hundreds dead or injured.

According to H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Middle East politics, “the Egyptian media hasn’t been covering it [the crackdown] much, except for calling it a ‘terrorist sweep’. The product of this lopsided narrative is that no calls have been made for accountability or an investigation [into the shootings] because of the media coverage.”

In the same vein, the pro-Morsi protests are hardly reported on except when there are clashes with the police, observers have noted. Critics have also charged that the state media has not provided coverage of the killing of 38 prisoners [Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters] in police custody, focusing instead on an almost daily coverage of the bloody incident in which 25 military conscripts were killed in North Sinai.

“The Egyptian media has not been interested in the killing of the prisoners, since the pictures of the bodies were extremely graphic and suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood could have been the victim in the incident,” Ibrahim said.

Al-Jazeera has gone against the prevailing trend by hosting pro-Morsi guests who have suggested conspiracy theories that claim that the intelligence agencies were involved in the murder of the conscripts.

“The media is extremely polarised, and both discourses appear to be driven by their own agendas and be incapable of reporting the truth,” Ibrahim said. “All the channels are showing are two-minute videos dubbed with racist and fascist remarks, telling viewers what to and what not to believe.”

 

THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE: many media experts agree that the traditional mechanisms governing Egypt’s media, both print and visual, have long served the propaganda needs of a dictatorial regime. “It is almost a tradition in Egypt of the government influencing media reports,” Berlin-based political scientist Hamadi Al-Aouni told Deutsche Welle.

The late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided that the country’s media should play a “strategic role” in 1954, according to Al-Aouni. “This strategy remains very much in force today,” he said.

Under the former Mubarak regime, said media and human-rights expert Mohamed Bassiouni, it was almost a tradition that “only regime loyalists could be appointed to leading media positions, regardless of their professionalism or integrity, and prior approval from state security was a must.”

This “corrupt mechanism,” many agree, resulted in a “distorted media elite” in which media figures would change positions and loyalties according to personal interests and the change of governments. Today, some observers joke that one can find out who is ruling Egypt from the state media headlines.

“Top journalists have changed their fawning loyalties with every change in the post-revolution power structure, from Mubarak to Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood,” Shukrallah commented.

Independent print and broadcast media, however, thrived under Mubarak in the early 2000s. These outlets, mostly owned by business tycoons, initially seemed to adopt a more liberal policy, touting their advocacy of democratic principles.

But many of the tycoons who owned the outlets also had interests linked to the Mubarak regime, casting shadows on their editorial policies. “An intertwining of media structures with politics” soon turned the outlets “into platforms for the business tycoons that owned them,” said Carola Richter, a professor of international communication at the Free University of Berlin, in a recent study of Egypt’s media.

Khalil agreed that there had been little such thing as an independent media in Egypt. “Both [state and privately owned media outlets] have been serving as propaganda machines for authoritarian regimes, thanks to the historic marriage of business and politics under Mubarak.”

“The Mubarak regime only allowed the media outlets — especially broadcast journalism — a limited space of freedom to reveal corruption and discuss ailing social problems,” Khalil chronicled.

Although the media shaped public opinion in a way that perhaps led to the 25 January Revolution, “the limited space of freedom remained cosmetic,” Khalil said. “Most outlets served as propaganda machines for the regime.”

 

THE MEDIA UNDER MORSI: Although almost all private media outlets, both print and broadcast, were highly critical of Morsi’s one turbulent year in power, Khalil insists that this did not mean that they enjoyed a larger margin of freedom.

“To put it bluntly, they knew it was not in Morsi’s power to close down the channels, since he was not actually the one ruling the country,” Khalil explained. All media outlets have been serving the SCAF since the ouster of Mubarak, he continued. “They played a major and direct role in mobilising for the 30 June protests that preceded the military’s ouster of Morsi.”

Richter similarly explained how the Egyptian media under Morsi, with its “unaltered structures left over from the old regime… not only reflected on events, but also actively contributed to heightening the situation.”

Although the Brotherhood advocated a neo-liberal economy when in power, Richter speculated that “it is clearly the military, with its own economic empire, that enjoyed a greater degree of trust among the business tycoons.”

Richter cites an incident after 2011 when tycoon Ahmed Bahgat, who owns Dream TV, “fired journalists who expressed criticisms of the army leadership” in support of her argument. “Even Naguib Sawiris’s financial support for the anti-Morsi signature campaign by the Tamarod Movement demonstrates the extent to which grassroots media can be instrumentalised for the sake of particular interests,” she added.

The Brotherhood’s reaction to that alleged or perceived criticism, however, was also stark, sometimes adapting Mubarak’s tactics of stifling criticism with threats of attacks on journalists and bans on their work. The Brotherhood attempted to impose its hegemony on the state-owned media, appointing a Brotherhood member at the helm of the ministry of information and a host of new editors at the national newspapers, for example.

These efforts at “Brotherhoodising” the state media were met with resistance on the part of journalists, editors and TV presenters, who were either Mubarak loyalists or were convinced that the Brotherhood was anti-democratic and incapable of good governance.

 

THE MEDIA TODAY: Looking at the state of the media today, we can see “a return to the old mechanisms of safeguarding authoritarian rule,” according to Richter. Khalil would agree with Deutsche Welle that “the political mood in the Egyptian media has deteriorated dramatically” since Morsi’s ouster.

“Journalists have been targeted by the authorities with intimidation and threats. Reporters Without Borders [an international journalists group] has condemned the increase in violence against independent journalists in Egypt. In addition to this, certain formulations and images were deliberately chosen to cover up some facts. All this resulted in misleading and manipulated reporting,” according to Deutsche Welle.

Critics charge that the interim government is also imposing its grip over state media coverage. “The prevalence of particular interests on the part of the business elite who own private print and TV journalism has provided a precondition for the military’s success in achieving complete media conformity after the overthrow of Morsi,” Richter said.

The recent suspension of CBC satirist Bassem Youssef’s television show after one episode criticising the military-backed government has been seen as an alarming sign of “the return of the businessmen and the owners of the satellite stations to imposing censorship in a bid to protect their own interests with the ruling authorities,” said the non-governmental Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

More alarmingly, perhaps, is that this time round “this was also accomplished without any appreciable opposition from journalists and media-makers,” Richter lamented.

 

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