Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The media power game

As the political situation in Egypt becomes increasingly polarised, Gihan Shahine investigates how print and broadcast journalism has been used for propaganda purposes

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Morsi: A Dictator — Temporarily”. Thus read the front-page headline of the privately owned daily Al-Masry Al-Youm in the aftermath of President Mohamed Morsi’s now-annulled constitutional declaration, which had given him nearly unrestricted powers until a referendum was held on Egypt’s new constitution.

The newspaper clearly adopted an anti-Morsi editorial line, and almost all its inside columns lambasted Morsi’s “dictatorship” and warned of a looming “civil war” if he did not retract his decree.

The state-owned media, by contrast, were less critical, tending to describe Morsi’s decree in the context of a “corrective revolution”.

On the second Friday of the anti-Morsi protests, the state-owned Al-Ahram daily’s editorial, entitled “The first and the last president”, was in sharp contrast to the sensational headlines inundating the country’s private press.

Al-Ahram’s editorial warned that the anti-Morsi protests could lead to a state of chaos and perhaps bankruptcy that could end up with either a retreat to military rule or foreign intervention. In both cases, the editorial argued, Egyptians, especially those from the poorer segments of society, would be the first to suffer, and Morsi would be the first and last freely elected president in the country’s history.

On 4 December, at least eight leading independent dailies suspended publication in protest against what they called the hurried drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, which critics have slammed as curbing freedom of expression.

On the eve of this media strike, Al-Masry Al-Youm ran front pages with a black background, saying in Arabic, “No to dictatorship: tomorrow the free newspapers will be black in order to protest against the restrictions on freedom,” together with a picture of a man wrapped in newspapers with his feet locked together.

The daily Al-Ahram did not mention the suspension of many of Egypt’s independent newspapers. Instead, its 4 December issue ran headlines saying that the judiciary would monitor a national referendum on the new constitution and announcing new government anti-corruption plans and investments to the tune of LE276 billion.

Whereas observers say that state TV has tended to dedicate more time to the supporters of Morsi’s decree, many also say that many private satellite channels, especially those owned by businessmen whose interests were linked to the former regime, have tended to join forces with the opposition.

Leftist TV host Wael Al-Ibrashi told viewers of his Dream TV show Al-Ashera Massaa (10PM) that the Islamists joining the pro-Morsi protesters were there “for oppression”, while the opposition in Tahrir Square was “for freedom”.

Orbit TV presenter Amr Adib also attacked the president and members of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood on his show Al-Qahera Al-Youm (Cairo Today), calling them “terrorists” and “sheep” among other names. 

 

A POLARISED SOCIETY AND A CONFLICT OF INTERESTS: This contrast, sometimes even chaos, in the media coverage of Egypt’s political scene should be seen in the larger context of the state of deepening polarisation plaguing the country.

The country has split into two almost equal camps over Morsi’s constitutional declaration and the new draft constitution, these being those siding with Morsi, mostly the Islamists, versus those being against him, mostly youth groups, liberal and secularist parties, and sectors of the public including Copts and artists.

The decree provoked massive protests on the part of the two camps, which soon grew into deadly clashes that killed and injured many from both sides in front of the presidential palace on 5 December.

The media, both print and TV, has reflected the rift in society, and whereas the Islamists have lambasted the private media for being “biased” against them, the liberals have also been critical of what they have called the “Brotherhoodisation” of the state-owned media.

In both cases, the media has been seen as the culprit and as a tool in the hands of the feuding powers on the political scene.

This has resulted in a scene that is at best eclectic. Whereas the Islamists have been camping out in front of the Media Production City (MPC), calling for the purge of private media outlets that they say have been hostile to the Islamists and Morsi, state TV presenters have been rallying in front of the state TV building in protest against the “Brotherhood’s hegemony” over the state TV channels.

Hundreds of journalists and media presenters also participated in the massive protests against the new constitution.

Whereas the state media has historically been a mouthpiece for the government and the regime, many media experts equally accuse the private media of serving hidden agendas and the interests of their owners, mainly business tycoons whose interests were closely linked to the former regime, religious organisations affiliated to the Brotherhood or Salafis, or organisations established and funded by foreign countries.

“There is no such thing as absolute freedom or objectivity in the world’s media, but rather only varying degrees of freedom,” said Sami Al-Sherif, a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Communication and former chair of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union (ERTU).

“The fact is that media outlets usually adopt an editorial policy that serves the interests of whoever funds them, be it the state, the private sector or a religious foundation,” added Al-Sherif, who was appointed to the ERTU after the 25 January Revolution. 

Media and human rights expert Mohamed Bassiouni concurred, adding that unlike the international media, which tends to prioritise social interests, the mechanisms governing Egypt’s private and state media have always served dictatorial regimes that are “regime rather than society oriented”.

Under the former Mubarak regime, “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,” Bassiouni said, resulted in a “distorted media elite, in which many media figures would change positions according to their personal rather than the national interests.”

Today, Bassiouni laments, the media “has not been purged” and the mechanisms governing it have not changed.

“Today, you can see the same old faces who were against the 25 January Revolution posing as its defenders, and the same people who cowered from speaking out against the Mubarak regime or the military council [that ruled during the country’s transitional period] only a few months ago, are suddenly showing exceptional bravery in criticising the current regime. In all such cases, the media figures are driven by their own interests rather than a sense of patriotism.”

 

“UNPROFESSIONAL AND CONFUSED”: Those working in the media have also been the victims of the unprecedented eclecticism of the political scene, which has left many media outlets in a state of chaos and with conflicting policies.

This confusion has been particularly apparent in the state-owned TV channels. A report on the performance of state-run radio and TV carried out by an internal committee and published by the BBC made it clear that the state TV stations’ coverage of the recent political developments was “non-professional, confused and lost, as they waited for directives on how to cover the news”.

The report mentioned state TV’s “coverage of the protests against an anti-prophet film in Egypt, a recent train accident in Assiut that killed 50 children, and the presidential decision to re-assign the prosecutor-general to another job” as being cases in point.

It criticised the state TV channels for being “inconsistent in their coverage of the protests and [Morsi’s] decree, despite trying to shed the image of being tools of propaganda,” and perhaps dedicating “more time to those supporting the decree”.

“Following the announcement of the decree, both stations were quick to interview figures likely to defend Mr Morsi’s decision,” the BBC journalist wrote on the organisation’s website.

As Morsi’s declaration began to draw angry reactions from judges, political forces and revolutionary groups, the channels seemed to take a more balanced view, featuring guests who criticised the move. “But over the next few days both state-run TV channels gave noticeably more airtime to figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, or supporters of the declaration,” according to the BBC report.

However, it conceded that the state TV had been largely objective and balanced in its live coverage of the anti-Morsi protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“They showed images from the square packed with people, and linked up with correspondents who talked freely about the demands of the protesters, some of which called for Mr Morsi’s departure,” according to the BBC.

“Moreover, Nile News interviewed Mamdouh Hamza, one of the strongest critics of the Muslim Brotherhood, who sharply criticised the declaration.”

Al-Sherif said that allowing criticism of the president was taboo under the former regime. However, he said that the today’s “relative objectivity” on the part of state TV might not necessarily be symptomatic of a larger margin of freedom in the media, but rather a reflection of Egypt’s polarised political scene.

After all, the “opposition is too strong to be ignored,” leaving the president on shaky ground and making it unpredictable who will ultimately have the upper hand.

“But once the regime stabilises, it will definitely tighten its grip over state TV,” Al-Sherif said.

State TV presenter and journalist Shahira Amin similarly suggested that state TV may appear more objective because with the exception of the newly-appointed Brotherhood minister of information most state TV staff are “old regime loyalists”.

Amin referred to graffiti reading “we miss your days, Mubarak” on the interior walls of the TV building as a case in point. More often than not, Amin added, many talk-show hosts are not professional enough to hide their bias against the new leadership.

 

REBEL VOICES IN STATE TV: Only a fortnight ago, Essam Al-Amir, head of Egypt’s state broadcaster, resigned in protest at how “the county has been managed since President Morsi’s constitutional declaration and the resulting divisions in society it has caused.”

A few hours later, Ali Abdel-Rahman, head of state TV’s specialised channels sector, resigned in protest against what he described as “the Brotherhood hegemony over state media policies”.

State media presenters Hala Fahmi and Buthaina Kamel were also suspended and questioned for having been critical of the Brotherhood on air.

Kamel described the Al-Gomhuriya national daily and the pro-Morsi protests as being ikhwaniya (mouthpieces for the Brotherhood) while reading the 24-hour news bulletin on state TV.

Fahmi similarly surprised viewers on a Sunday live evening show when she took out a burial shroud saying that “everyone should tell the truth whatever it costs and carry his shroud in his hands.”

Fahmi was discussing the turbulent political scene in Egypt and had held up the shroud to indicate that whoever speaks out against the Brotherhood would be risking his life before the transmission was cut.

Fahmi told the Egyptian Independent newspaper that she had wanted to rebel against what she called the Brotherhoodisation of the state media. Fahmi said that “a number of TV workers have been subjected to frequent threats to abstain from content that provokes the officials” and to host Brotherhood members and members of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) “on most of the episodes of my weekly programme.”

Yet, state TV was long used as a propaganda tool by the former regime, and it remains questionable why such rebel voices did not take a similar stand against “the blackout of coverage of the 25 January Revolution”, or when Egypt was ruled by the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), when it was clear that criticism of the ruling generals was a “red line”.

Amin said she had resigned her post as deputy head of Nile TV during the 25 January Revolution particularly because on the day of the Battle of the Camel she was not allowed to make any mention of the massacres of the peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square in the afternoon news bulletin.

She was not allowed to take a camera to Tahrir to cover the protests and was asked to cover the pro-Mubarak rallies instead, so she decided “to just walk out”.

Amin says that many of the channels owned by businessmen whose interests were closely linked to the former regime similarly adopted the state line at the time for fear that they “would fall out of favour with the regime”.

When Amin went back to work two months after the ouster of the former regime, the then ruling military council was a clear “red line” in both the state and private media, and many TV presenters, including Amin, suffered intimidation to prevent them speaking out against the generals.

In the meantime, Amin observed how both the state and private media adhered to an “old-regime tactic to tarnish the Islamists”, who by then dominated both the parliamentary and presidential polls, creating a state of Islamophobia and polarisation in society.

“The media obviously focussed on the most extreme voices, which did not represent the majority of Salafis and the Brotherhood, in an attempt to scare the public,” Amin said. She added that an episode of her Sunday night show on Nile TV that had attempted to correct misconceptions about the Salafis through interviews with Salafis on their stances on women and the Copts had been intentionally removed from YouTube, the only show of hers in which this happened.

“In that episode,” Amin said, “Salafi leaders insisted that they had not torched churches or attacked women on the streets, but that such claims were part of a media campaign against them.”

In its monitoring report on the media during the presidential elections, the Independent Coalition for Monitoring Elections charged the state-owned channels with being “keen to criticise the Muslim Brotherhood without providing information in support of the rival candidate”.

“The media should also be held responsible for consolidating the idea of a confrontation between the religious and civil state and the necessity of choosing between them,” the report said, adding that the media had contributed to the state of polarisation and animosity that continued to plague society.

 

LOCKED IN A POWER STRUGGLE: However, it was during Morsi’s early days as president that many observers noted that Egypt’s media was apparently caught in a power struggle between the newly-elected president, the SCAF and the judiciary.

Amin suggested at the time that “several Mubarak-era journalists, editors and TV presenters chose to side with the SCAF, perhaps out of a belief that it retained the higher authority in the country.”

The New York Times similarly speculated at the time that the state-run media was launching “a campaign to undercut the newly-elected president”.

This was made more evident when Morsi attempted to reconvene the Islamist-majority parliament that the SCAF had earlier dissolved by virtue of a hurried court ruling, causing a stand-off with the military, as well as with the secularists and the judges. According to the Times, Egypt’s state-run media then “quickly allied with the generals [through coverage that was] biased in favour of the military against the president.”

“The state media campaign against Morsi is part of a bewildering power struggle in the streets, the courts and back rooms that has all but paralysed Egypt’s government,” the paper noted.

Amin has chronicled how the “airwaves were dominated by denunciations by critics, who called Morsi’s constitutional decision ‘unconstitutional’ and warned that it would turn the country into a lawless jungle.”

Many private and state media outlets, both print and audiovisual, have also suggested that the new president’s loyalty rests with the Muslim Brotherhood rather than with the country as a whole and that the group intends to turn Egypt into “an Islamic caliphate”.

Amin refers to an incident when Orbit talk show host Amr Adib told “viewers on his show Al-Qahera Al-Youm that he expected Egyptians to be flogged for their wrongdoings in public squares under Islamist rule” as a case in point.

She describes how the private media “deliberately hyped up an incident in Suez in which a man was reportedly stabbed and killed by ‘bearded Islamists’ while walking his fiancée home.”

Some media presenters on the private channels were quick to warn that the incident was “just the beginning of a trend in which the Islamists would try to impose their ultra-conservative norms on the rest of society,” Amin said. However, investigations then revealed that “the suspects were not affiliated to any extremist organisations or religious groups and that the killing had been an accident.”

This hostile media campaign, according to Amin, has dealt a sharp blow to a president “who has won the election with a margin of just 800,000 votes,” and “in a country where the rate of illiteracy is as high as 40 per cent, the public can easily be swayed one way or the other.”

 

THE BROTHERHOOD BACKLASH: Many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including its supreme guide, and FJP spokesmen have complained that the media has adopted a hostile line towards the group, alleging that this campaign has been aimed at unseating the president.

The Brotherhood has adopted old regime tactics in its backlash against this alleged anti-Morsi media campaign by moving to assert its influence over the state media, especially since the Islamist-dominated Shura Council, tasked with reshuffling leading positions in the state media, was at risk of being dissolved by a court ruling.

The appointment of Brotherhood member Salah Abdel-Maksoud at the helm of the Information Ministry that governs the editorial policy of all state TV channels has been seen as part of a Brotherhood plan to control the state TV channels.

The Shura Council’s recent reshuffle of the board chairmen and chief editors of the state press institutions has also been seen as a step in the same direction. Critics say that the new appointees include figures belonging to, or having hidden sympathies with, the Brotherhood.

Recent reports claim that the minister of information has started investigating journalists critical of the president, that state newspaper editors have refused to publish stories critical of the Brotherhood, and that the state-owned TV channels have similarly been prevented from broadcasting programmes criticising the Brotherhood.

Perhaps more alarmingly, many senior editors, albeit not Brotherhood members or sympathisers, have reportedly volunteered to ban stories critical of the Brotherhood because many of those working in the state-owned media are “programmed” to show their loyalty to the authorities, which still have the upper hand over appointments, as was the case under the former regime.

In addition, the new government has made a number of moves against journalists and media presenters that many in the field have seen as reproducing the former regime’s tactics to stifle dissent and curb the freedom of expression.

Both the Dream and Al-Tahrir satellite TV channels were recently taken off the air, allegedly for transmitting from outside the state-owned MPC. Dream was temporarily allowed back on air by virtue of a court ruling, but critics lambasted the initial ban as “politically-motivated”, saying that the two channels had been “legally ambushed” for allowing criticism of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The fact that Al-Jazeera also transmits from MPC, and yet did not receive any warning, may corroborate the critics’ arguments.

“The temporary ban on Dream TV is part a series of actions designed to subjugate the Egyptian media,” wrote columnist Yasser Abdel-Aziz in Al-Masry Al-Youm. Taken together with a draft constitution that in the eyes of some does not go far enough to guarantee a free media, another recent incident in which the Al-Gomhuriya editor-in-chief, Gamal Abdel-Rehim, was dismissed has increased concerns over media restrictions.

Abdel-Rehim, appointed a few months ago by the Shura Council, was dismissed after an article published in the state newspaper falsely stated that former SCAF leaders Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan were facing a travel ban.

According to the former Mubarak regime’s repressive press laws, journalists who do not publish retractions or corrections of false information can face at least three months in prison, but Abdel-Rehim argued that he was not given the opportunity to print a retraction.

Private TV channel Faraeen was also earlier taken off the air, and its owner, controversial TV presenter Tawfik Okasha, faced trial on charges of slandering the president and allegedly inciting his murder by saying on air that he would “make your [Morsi’s] blood permissible as well.”

Editions of the daily Al-Dostour opposition newspaper have also been confiscated, and its chief editor is facing trial on charges of having called for the ouster of the president, hinting that this could happen with the help of the military, in a confiscated issue on 11 August.

The Al-Dostour editorial had warned that unless the group was ousted, “Egypt will see the destruction of a citizen’s dignity in front of his family and his children and the removal of his private property rights”.

Whereas in democracies presidents should be tolerant of “all kinds of criticism”, in Egypt many media experts have said that slander and misguiding public opinion through the circulation of rumours should be penalised by law.

As a result, many have argued that Faraeen should have been closed for deteriorating standards, rather than for its comments about Morsi.

“Slander is unethical and legally punishable, but only its perpetrators should be questioned. The whole media organisation should not be shut down,” Al-Sherif said.

Al-Sherif was perhaps expressing a consensus among media experts when he said that the Brotherhood had miscalculated when “it gave attention to every single offence and used heavy-handed tactics to stifle dissent.”

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