The elegant Greek Club in the heart of downtown Cairo has hosted many joyful society events over the years but the 30 or so editors and leading journalists who gathered there this week for the inaugural meeting of the Egyptian Editors Association were not in a cheerful mood.
They met to kick off a much-needed debate about the collapse of ethical and independent journalism across the media landscape in the wake of the popular revolt against Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, who was ousted on June 30 last year. Six months on and with a new constitution safely confirmed by popular vote—including three precious articles protecting free speech and press freedom—the journalists, all of them with reputations for free-thinking and professionalism, were meeting to address an editorial crisis that has overwhelmed newsrooms in recent months.
It had been such a bright beginning. Egypt’s democratic revolution of 2011 saw the removal of the former president, Hosni Mubarak, and his repressive regime. New media were launched and the number of minority voices being heard dramatically increased. The growth of pluralism generated unprecedented optimism about the scope for independent journalism and a new era of press freedom.
Three years later, the dream is on hold.
The election of Morsi, despite its electoral symbolism, did not respond to the aspirations of those wishing to press ahead with the democratic transformation of Egypt. Indeed, for many at all levels of Egyptian society, including the media, it revealed new threats. Having overturned the repression of Mubarak’s police state, progressive forces in Egypt were in no mood to hand over their hard-won democracy to the creeping religious fascism of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
As a result, many journalists, including some of the iconic media leaders of the revolution—such as the broadcaster ONTV and the daily Al-Masry Al Youm—became foot-soldiers in what they see as a continuing battle to save the soul of their revolution. This was no orchestrated conspiracy but rather a coming together of like minds. Journalists and editors from across the state and independent sectors found themselves linked by a shared alarm and frustration over the programme of the Morsi regime and within it a growing threat to the ideals of the revolution.
In the turbulent weeks after Morsi was removed, independent media found themselves drifting into a new role—as key players, along with the state-owned media, in a broad political front with the state, the military, the judiciary and the police. Notions of ethical, independent journalism were suspended and replaced by self-censorship and partisan reporting, as the interim, military-backed, civilian government targeted the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. The group was banned as a “terrorist” organisation and has been driven underground.
For most journalists the “national interest” is a wretched excuse for propaganda, deceptive handling of the truth and editorial malice
This change of direction inside journalism and the perceived loss of objectivity has bewildered media observers outside the country and shocked some working with local partners to strengthen professionalism and diversity inside media. The media crisis is particularly felt by foreign journalists, who now find Cairo a threatening and hostile place. Twenty journalists, most from Aljazeera, have been arrested and face a range of charges. Some are in jail awaiting trial accused of aiding terrorism—that is, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Many journalists are threatened or forced to leave the country if they question or challenge the anti-Brotherhood consensus that dominates Egyptian political life.
Against this confused and threatening landscape the journalists at the Greek Club, a rich mix of professionals from across all platforms—radio, television, web and print—as well as from both public and private sectors, spent the day, as one speaker put it, “raising the alarm” for press freedom and journalism. They discussed openly and honestly how journalism had been hijacked in support of the “popular dictatorship”, which, in truth, media themselves have played a role in creating. They considered how the national voice in defence of the revolution had overwhelmed the professional voice inside journalism.
They discussed how at times of national crisis media often make common cause with the state and others to defend the people and the national interest. Isn’t this what happened to mainstream American journalism after the September 11 attacks, when media suspended notions of balance and objectivity after the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington in 2001? Perhaps, but everyone lamented how the rhetoric of George W Bush’s “war on terror”—“you are either with us or you are against us”—had taken hold in Cairo. For most journalists the “national interest” is a wretched excuse for propaganda, deceptive handling of the truth and editorial malice but it is often the reason that has been used recently to explain media behaviour.
They noted how the young journalists who had been given their heads in the wake of the removal of Mubarak had been reined in and how advertising agencies and intrusive owners were calling the editorial shots. And, finally, they discussed how to change direction and get back to the basics of ethics, pluralism and professional journalism. Many did not have much sympathy for Aljazeera, whose Egyptian station Mubasher has come in for particularly criticism for biased journalism in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari policy in the region. Nevertheless, the mood was strongly against detaining journalists and putting them on trial for their journalism, on bizarre charges of broadcasting “false news”.
By the end of the day the mood in the Greek club had begun to lighten. The journalists emerged stronger and revived by the frankness of their exchange. They supported a range of follow-up actions and agreed:
Other struggles lie ahead, of course—not least the battle over a new media law which is likely to emerge later this year after presidential and parliamentary elections. And there remains the challenge of reforming the vast network of government-owned media, including newspapers like Al-Ahram and the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, which operates more than 20 television and radio stations.
But those can wait for now. The journalists and editors have broken their silence over the media crisis. It is a small beginning and nothing is certain but Egyptian journalists are getting back on track.