Hussein Tallal/Demotix. All rights reserved.
July 3 marks the two year anniversary of the ‘popular’ ouster of the former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi.
It’s quite evident that Egypt’s state-run and privately owned media outlets are trapped in a web of biases; embracing president Abdel Fattah El Sisi and his regime's perspective as they step into ethical and professional quandaries. Moreover, the imprisonment of journalists nationwide has reached a record high, mostly for reasons pertinent to their reporting.
In such a climate of frenzied bias, it's of perennial interest to observe the trends that have dominated the country's media landscape over the past two years, most notably during Sisi's first year in power.
1. Sex scandals and sorcery
Earlier this year the editor-in-chief of Tahrir News, Ibrahim Mansour, suggested that the government was giving direct instructions to media outlets to "cover sex scandals and other silly issues" to distract people from politics. Mansour's statement came a few weeks after 26 men were arrested during a televised raid on a Cairo public bathhouse.
The televised documentation of this raid couldn't have been possible without a tip off, because images of half naked men were broadcast as they were being arrested. TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, who covered the incident, hosts a program on the pro-government satellite channel Al-Qahira wal-nas. Coincidentally, the cases of "habitual debauchery" against these men were later dismissed.
Ironically, this same TV journalist, who unearthed "the biggest den of perversions in the heart of Cairo," posted a tweet few days ago in support of LGBT rights.
Similarly in mid-2014, another Egyptian talk show host, Reham Saeed, kicked an atheist guest off her live show for expressing scepticism of Islam. In the same year Saeed, in a desperate bid for TV ratings, brought "demonically possessed" children to television screens in an attempt to unabashedly tackle the nitty-gritty details of twins that turn into cats at night.
2. Graphic images
It's patently obvious that image selection has always been an ethical dilemma for journalists across the globe. In other words, it's deemed unethical to publish disturbing images of the dead and wounded. Taken in this light and in the throes of Egypt's ‘war on terror’, some local media outlets resorted to republishing graphic images released by the military, which depict corpses of militants killed in Sinai by soldiers.
Al-Youm Al-Sabea, Al-Bawaba and Al-Watan newspapers among others, sided with the government and focused their coverage on extolling the army's soldiers and documenting their victory. This trend has been reiterated more than once over the past two years of Sinai’s festering clashes.
3. In-credible sources
No one can deny the ever-rising media trend, in an age of web-based journalism, of relying on stories sourced from other journalists. However, all the blemishes and flaws of this trend have appeared in Egypt's local media, especially during bomb raids against ISIS in Libya in retaliation to the beheading of Egyptian Copts by a local franchise of the Islamic State.
The Kuwaiti writer and journalist, Fajer Al-Saeed, with her controversial tweets on Egyptian Air Force attacks in Libya is but a one example of this. After some of her predictions were accurate, she became a credible and reliable source for local media outlets. Being a conduit for secret information, just after the air strikes Al-Saeed kept posting tweets revealing alleged Egyptian military operations against ISIS in Libya in detail.
Egyptian media adopted all Al-Saeed's tweets and used them as if they were sourced from a military spokesman. Al-Watan, Al-Fajr, Al-Youm Al-Sabea and Al-Dostour, among other Egyptian newspapers, copied the tweets verbatim.
4. Slamming foreign media
After security forces cleared two pro-Morsi sit-ins in August 2013, Egypt's State Information Service (SIS) issued an English-language statement to foreign media excoriating their coverage of the events. The statement criticised foreign reporters of steering away from "objectivity" and "neutrality”, especially in their description of Morsi's ouster as a military coup and not an expression of popular will. Consequently, local media outlets adopted the government’s viewpoints.
The same trend was reiterated a few days ago when militants linked to ISIS attacked the military in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. In an interview with state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, the military's spokesman, Brigadier General Mohamed Samir, said the army “was fighting two wars": against the militants and the media.
Associated Press and other foreign news agencies said 64 Egyptian troops had been killed, whilst the army put the number at seventeen. As a result, General Samir reprimanded foreign agencies and other media outlets for reducing people’s morale by overestimating the number of dead soldiers.
Unfortunately, numerous local media outlets sided with the government and launched a deliberate attack against foreign agencies in an attempt to diminish the latter's credibility and reliability. Ironically, the privately owned newspaper Al-Watan published an article titled "five professional mistakes foreign newspapers made in covering Sinai's events".
5. Siding with the state
Under former president Mubarak, journalists were divided into two camps, either with the president or the opposition, but today most journalists are siding with the military government.
The Guardian recently published an article that highlighted the number of Egyptian TV presenters and journalists who are now mouthpieces for the government.
For example, Ahmed Moussa, one of the most popular TV presenters in the country, expressed his unconditional support for the military and president saying: "I would say anything the military tells me to say out of duty and respect for the institution". Similarly, TV host Mahmoud Saad said: "the military should never ever be covered...You have to let them decide what to say and when to say it. You don't know what will hurt national security."
Moreover, in an interview with Saba’a Ayam magazine, Egyptian talk-show host Wael El-Ebrashy said: "It's inappropriate to use the term objectivity nowadays; the country is in a state of war against terror. We can't be unbiased; we should all side with our country so peace and stability can prevail once more."
Given the fact that there’s a media blackout and almost fourty percent of the population is illiterate, parochial TV presenters are now shaping public opinion.
6. Media moguls and self-censorship
In the wake of January 25th Revolution, many Egyptian privately owned newspapers, TV channels and news websites were taking advantage of the atmosphere of chaos that afflicted the country at that time. These outlets instil a spurious sense of media freedom. However, Egyptian media is far from liberalised; these newly established media platforms are funded by the same cadre of well-known moguls who are aligned with the regime.
To illustrate, both Reem Maged and Yousry Foda, the two outspoken TV hosts who were known for their fierce criticism of the army and government, disappeared from screens shortly after Morsi's fall in 2013. ONTV’s owner, Naguib Sawiris, however, explicitly denied receiving any instructions from authorities to suspend Reem Maged's show, claiming that the reason was lack of funding from advertisements.
TV presenter Hafez Mirazi and the prominent political satirist Bassem Youssef also had their programs suspended. CBC pulled Bassem Youssef off air in November 2013, even though his program had the highest viewership in the Arab world.
7. Curtailing press freedom
Journalists have faced unprecedented repression over the past two years, especially during Sisi's first year in power. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recently issued a report claiming that there are 18 journalists currently incarcerated—the highest number of journalists behind bars since it began keeping records in 1990. Most of these journalists are being accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The most outstanding case was that of the three journalists working for Al-Jazeera: Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, Mohamed Adel Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian national.
They were arrested in late 2013 for "spreading false news and helping the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood." After spending more than a year in prison, Fahmy and Mohamed were freed on bail; nearly a fortnight after their Australian colleague was deported. On the whole, Freedom House watchdog group ranked Egypt 73 out of 100 in press freedom in 2015, compared to rankings of 68 in 2014 and 62 in 2013.
Though official censorship is not a tool the government has yet blatantly practiced, in May 2015 privately-owned Al-Watan newspaper was briefly shut down over a headline that was supposedly offensive to President Sisi. The newspaper’s front page headline was changed from “Seven entities stronger than Sisi” to “Seven entities stronger than reform.” An opinion piece by the newspaper’s managing editor, Alaa al-Ghatrify, was also censored. The newspaper was permitted to republish but only after the headline was adjusted and the column removed.
On the flip side, despite the fact that the 2014 Egyptian constitution includes several positive provisions related to freedom of expression, access to information and the media in general, there are still articles that can be used to put journalists behind bars.
These press laws and penal codes will reach a crescendo when a new anti-terrorism law is approved. This law will make publishing news that counters the official version of events in terrorism-related cases a crime punishable with prison sentences.
One can only hope that one day Egypt's media outlets will cherish the values of truth, objectivity, accuracy, and accountability, along with independence and freedom of expression.