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Free at Last? Charting Egypt's Media Post-Mubarak

[Egyptian Armed Forces outside the Egyptian state television and radio building. Image from Almasry Alyoum.] [Egyptian Armed Forces outside the Egyptian state television and radio building. Image from Almasry Alyoum.]

Old Habits Die Hard

On the morning of 12 February, Al-Ahram, the Egyptian national newspaper and the publication with the widest distribution in the Arab world, ran a headline over its banner declaring: “The People Have Toppled the Regime.” Like the rest of the government-run media, both print and broadcast, throughout the eighteen days of protest in January and February 2011, Al-Ahram’s coverage of events was replete with misinformation, disinformation, incitement, and fear-mongering in a last-gasp attempt by the authorities to undermine the massive uprisings.

With Mubarak gone, it remained to be seen whether the state media would face a similar revolution from within. There were ardent efforts from within some of these institutions, such as the young editors and reporters movement at Al-Ahram, which organized from the early days of the revolution and continued for weeks after the removal of Mubarak, trying to topple the paper’s NDP-loyal administration. Similar efforts at transforming Egypt’s broadcast sector—referred to as Maspero—pitted pro-revolutionary employees against an old guard that was extremely difficult to budge.

In February and March, it was clear that there was a marked shift in the tone of state broadcasting; they had seemingly embraced the protest movement, treated its youth as inspirational figures, and dedicated substantial amounts of coverage to memorializing the revolution. For those watching the news after 11 February, it looked like a sea-change whereby government television immediately took on the revolutionary tone, playing patriotic songs commemorating the 25 January youth revolution. Protesters became a mainstay on the state television talk shows. It appeared that the revolution had finally arrived to the region’s largest broadcast entity. Young journalists demanded the removal of top management whose work during the past few years had ensured that state media was firmly committed to the Mubarak government and the NDP.

[About the state's media: "Say no to drugs . . . and to Egyptian Television] 

It was during this preliminary period that the Ministry of Information was still the subject of scrutiny and was facing the potential of being disbanded. The red lines had seemingly dissipated and no subject was off the table. The hierarchy within state media appeared to have dissolved, leaving only competing discourses. However, this honeymoon was short-lived. By early April, it became clear that the military was reorganizing and reconstituting the state media to mirror that of Mubarak’s era, but with new symbols. Increasingly, state television and radio as well as print media began once again to toe the government’s line. Criticism of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) was practically non-existent. Criticism of the mismanagement of the transition, which was very scarce, was directed at the interim government rather than the executive military branch. Besides using the government as a scapegoat, this effort was coupled with a gradually increasing vilification of any and all protests after 11 February. Through the disparagement of protesters and revolutionary movements in the country, the state media were able to quickly realign themselves with the counter-revolution. This resulted in some iconic journalistic blunders, which I outline in a timeline below.

Suffice it to say that the gulf between state and private media has never been wider than it was between April and December 2011. The state media’s superior terrestrial reach in Egyptian homes and its advantage over private satellite networks has given the military the assurance that the majority of Egyptians will watch their shows. Additionally, SCAF has also gambled on the Egyptian people’s loyalty and respect for the armed forces through decades of indoctrination in the media and education.

Journalistic integrity and the public good became debatable terms as the state media continued to excuse, overlook, or absolve the police state’s attack on the unrelenting protest movement. At no moment was this more stark than on 9 October 2011, when the military attacked a peaceful protest by a largely Coptic Christian group, which led to the deaths of dozens, many of whom were run over by armored vehicles. Despite the incident occurring at the front door of Maspero (the building housing the Egyptian Radio and Television sector), the state media not only accused the protesters of attacking the military, but also called on people to protect their military against attacks by the Copts. This was done against the backdrop of a wide range of evidence suggesting that the opposite accounts were true.

Interestingly, Mubarak’s last Minister of Information, Anas El-Feky, now faces a trial for his complicity in misinformation and propagandizing against the protesters. His implication in coercing independent, private, and foreign media during the revolution, as well as the decision to shut down the internet for a five-day period on 27 January, are all considered serious offenses. However, since Anas El-Feky, every authority to hold office in the Ministry has acted in a manner akin to his predecessor. Shortly after the Maspero massacre, arguably the sector’s most blatantly skewed coverage, then-Minister of Information Osama Heikal came out and expressed his pride in the state media’s performance, calling it unbiased, accurate, factual, and professional.

During subsequent protests, featuring slogans criticizing the military, accusing SCAF of treason, and calling for an end to military rule, the state media has been walking on eggshells for fear of being accused of turning the public against the military. One example: in December, following the attacks on the Cabinet protest, the program “Eye” on the state radio station dedicated to “Youth and Sport” lost its license, and its hosts Hany Hathout and Nancy Mohammed were investigated, for taking a two-minute call from the father of detained blogger Alaa Abdelfattah, on the grounds of incitement against the military. The term “incitement” now features prominently on state media to refer to any coverage that might turn public opinion against SCAF. It is clear that as security forces escalate the campaign of violence against protesters, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the military and ruling powers to control the message, as employees within the state media more frequently break rank and express their outrage on air. Many are demoted, fired, or have charges brought against them, but the pattern continues.

[Ezzeldin Shokry, former Ambassador and professor of political science at AUC appears on Egyptian State Television and tells the Minister of Information, "there is a great discovery called a remote that allows people to switch away from Egyptian state channels when they don't like what they see!!!" ] 

For some time shortly after Mubarak’s toppling, SCAF devised an ad hoc body to administer the state media sector, known as the National Council on the Media. While acting as an interim legislative body for the regulation for Egyptian media prior to the Ministerial reshuffle, the council was headed by a member of the military, General Tarek El-Mahdi. This council drew protests from many, including the veteran journalist and talk show host Hafez El-Mirazi, who resigned from his position on the board of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) in protest against the council being led by a military general. While this body seemed to have little authority when it was appointed, it appears that it was in fact a stepping-stone towards positioning the military establishment at the heart of media regulation in the country. When the government of Essam Sharaf resigned following intense clashes between the police and Tahrir protesters in November, Minister of Information Heikal was replaced by Armed Forces General Ahmed Anis. This is a move that bodes poorly for the direction of media administration and regulation in the country, especially as it coincides with an escalation of confrontations between the public and the military and more vocal demands for an end to military rule. Many in the Egyptian media and journalism sectors fear that the military’s excessive access to the centers of institutional power across all industries and sectors of the state will be difficult to undo.

In the past few months, campaigns have popped up on social networking sites and on the ground to boycott Egyptian state media. In most cases, when protest marches pass by the headquarters of any state media, such as Maspero or the offices of Al-Ahram, Akhbar, or Gomhouria, protests often chant against them “Shame on you” and “Liars, liars.” With as large, bureaucratic, and clunky a behemoth as Egyptian state media, any change in operations will be a slow and plodding process. Nevertheless, there are cracks emerging in the once-rigid walls of state media. On a weekly basis, journalists, editors, and reporters go rogue and challenge their superiors, refuse to toe the government line, and dissent against the press-release approach to news coverage. Ominously, almost a year after the eruption of the revolution in Egypt, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) continues to fire, prosecute, and defame those who are critical within the institution.

Second Satellite Revolution?

In the months preceding the revolution, the government, sensing a state of general unrest, decided to suspend the licenses of a dozen channels (including four religious ones) on the grounds of “code of ethics violations.” In an attempt to reverse the trend of censorship and as a sign of good faith to the fourth estate, SCAF approved sixteen new private satellite channels after the fall of Mubarak and vowed not to interfere or restrict any media in any way. Yet this came alongside a decree issued by the Chairman of the General Authority of Investment and Free Zones, stating that the approval of the National Security Agency (which has replaced the despised State Security Agency) for the licensing of any new newspaper or television channel will no longer be necessary. 

Egyptians now find themselves glued to the satellite television networks every night as they follow the analysis and fallout of each day’s activities and developments. Channel switching between the talk shows is very common as hosts compete to book the most compelling and informed, and in some cases the most eccentric voices. This feeling of near-complete liberty is a new one and Egyptians, guests, and audiences alike are reveling in it. With satellite penetration rates rising swiftly to almost sixty percent of households, these networks are now beginning to split the pie with terrestrial state television channels that remain the most accessible with up to ninety-five percent of households having access to  hem.

With the state media stubbornly crawling along in the most-Mubarak era, the private satellite channels have emerged as the most significant players in the media scene with the talk-show format reigning supreme as most common source of news for Egyptians with access to satellite television. This format is peculiar because of its open-ended approach. It tends to be extremely lengthy and host-based programs can easily run over two hours with infrequent commercial breaks. The primary players in this highly competitive talk-show market are some of the older networks, and a few newcomers. Egypt’s richest man, Naguib Sawiris, is the owner of the channel ONTV which runs two extremely popular talkshows, Yousri Fouda’s Akher Kalam (Last Words) and Reem Magued’s Baladna Bilmasry (Our Country in Egyptian). Its competitors are Egypt’s first private satellite network Dream TV which runs Mona El-Shazly’s popular talk show Al-Ashera Masa’an (10:00 pm). Mehwar TV, owned by Egyptian businessman Hassan Rateb, is home to Moataz El-Demerdash’s show 90 Dakeeka (90 minutes). Al-Hayat boasts a large audience among the private satellite channels but rarely has any particular formula that caters to any particular audience segment. One of its hosts Sherif Amer was formerly with Al-Hurra. New channels such as CBC, owned by wealthy engineer Mohammed Amin said to be behind Youm7 newspaper, includes a family of networks is a hefty startup with a large budget to attract a large number of audiences.

Notable among the newcomers is Al-Tahrir channel which is the collaborative effort of Ahmed Abu Haiba, the media entrepreneur behind moderate Islamic television preacher Amr Khaled and of Islamic music channel 4Shabab, Ibrahim Eissa, the prominent oppositional journalist who was imprisoned under Mubarak, and interior design engineer Mohammed Morad. Formed largely out of Tahrir Square during the eighteen days of protest, the star-studded roster of the channel has given them an advantage over their competitors in the first few months of the SCAF-rule. It currently boasts talk shows hosted by veteran Mahmoud Saad, formerly of Egyptian state television, Ibrahim Eissa, a show by one of Egypt’s most respected oppositional journalists Hamdy Kandil, scriptwriter and editorialist for Almasry Alyoum Bilal Fadl, and until recently prominent activist Nawara Negm. For some months, Al-Tahrir was the only channel which consistently criticized SCAF, raising questions about possible backroom deals with powerbrokers. Nevertheless, it is noticeable that Al-Tahrir and some of the other post-Mubarak startup networks are more inclined to level criticism to the military council compared to their more established competitors.

However, one should not confuse this growing margin of freedom with total media liberty. Since Mubarak’s toppling, it has been a tug-of-war between the interim authorities and private broadcasters in an attempt to rein the latter in and curb their capacity to challenge the state’s rhetorical monopoly. Hence the military has had to play the game wisely to avoid being admonished publicly for muzzling the press. By calling in to producers of shows to inquire about the day’s line up, interfering in the way stories are told, and calling during broadcast and demanding to be put on air, they are able to send a clear message to the private stations—that they are being monitored closely. Through a sinister combination of compulsion and coercion, the military has both effectively infiltrated most private networks and has an array of options to ensure compliance from station owners, staff and media personalities. Numerous examples of this are documented in the timeline below. 

Another channel that has received much attention is known as Al-Fara’een. Its owner and most prominent show host, Tawfik Okasha, has become an iconic character because of his absurd style and often incoherent diatribes. His hyperbolic persona, strange gaffes and frequent buffoonery have become a spectacle which draw large numbers of viewers and made him a hit online and in the social media. Shockingly, he has developed a political following largely because he has aligned himself with those who criticize the revolution and has called for protests and actions against them. For some time, he also allowed an eccentric anti-revolutionary university student and aspiring musician who goes by the alias “Ahmed Spider” to briefly host his own show. While the absurdity of this program and others on Al-Fara’een station verges on self-parody, they have nevertheless been able to develop a political following and have an impact on public affairs. Okasha often calls for demonstrations against Tahrir protesters and more seriously Ahmed Spider accused prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abdelfattah of inciting the violence at Maspero between Christian protesters and the military and himself submitted cases against revolutionaries to the Attorney General’s office.

Another important phenomenon in private media in Egypt has been the development of online video portals and gateways for every newspaper as they look to exploit the increasingly relevant multimedia documentation of developments in the country and to capitalize on the growing online audience. Furthermore, they are also filling an important void for satellite networks that are incapable of financially supporting a large network of reporters to follow the daily incidents happening throughout the country. The most prominent portals are those of Al-Ahram, Al-Wafd, Almasry Alyoum, El-Shorouk and Youm7 whose online teams have excelled at posting content in an extremely timely fashion. These repositories of sourced video content have provided material and fodder for the private networks that are less reluctant than the state media to broadcast amateur footage and rough cuts of video on air. 

Private networks have become closely aligned with political movements, often using their air-time to advocate for their perspectives, e.g. ONTV’s coverage of El-Kotla El-Masreya (The Egyptian Bloc). One cannot underplay the significant role played by channel owners and media entrepreneurs in the content and conduct of the channels. From the firing of Dina Abdelrahman from Dream TV by owner Ahmed Bahgat after an on-air argument with a military general to the frequent interventions by Naguib Sawiris both behind the scenes and on the set of prominent talk-show on his channel ONTV.

While presenting varied perspectives on their channels, each network distinguishes itself with different degrees of proximity to the revolution and the protest movement. Regular viewership of these channels allows audiences to decipher the extent to which each offering is aligned with the government, SCAF, the political forces in the country and the youth revolutionaries. The ownership structures and the influence of wealthy financiers behind these networks has itself become a major risk for the political and economic prospects of a revolutionary Egypt. Few channels cover the governorates outside of Cairo and Alexandria consistently and empathetically. Bourgeoisie sensibilities of the private media remain a significant obstacle to their independence from centers of economic influence and a source of dissonance with an increasingly impoverished Egyptian public. Most of them have lavish sets, and stylistically court the upper middle class to an extent that leaves them woefully out of touch with the Egyptian majority. Furthermore, rarely do they embrace or adopt political agendas which advantage the most subjugated in society. With infrequent coverage of Egypt’s poverty-stricken communities and failure to bring their stories to the fore, they are instead investing in urban middle upper class bourgeoisie elitism and the intellectual and economic intelligentsia. This may be a result of circumstantial conditions and the overwhelming import of Cairo as a political epicenter.

Yet a more sinister problem has come in the form of an overwhelming disinterest in and condescension towards the massive labor actions affecting the country. The patterned dismissal of these protests and strikes and sit-ins which can be best described as an attempt to uproot institutional corruption and corporate greed in every industrial and service sector in the country and ensure labor and farmer rights, is a self-evident disparagement of any anti-corporate agenda in the country. Most of the station owners who earned their fortunes in other industries—from mobile technology and tourism, and from ceramics to construction—are personally opposed to these labor movements and have derailed any sustained coverage of these actions on their respective channels. So while they may have differing agendas vis-à-vis SCAF, the Islamist political forces, the youth coalitions, and the liberal politicians, most converge on their inflexibility on labor rights.

So while the private media are operating in an increasingly cacophonous, ambiguous, unpredictable and extremely competitive arena, they are unsure about their trajectory. There is no certainty whether they will be able to grow and flourish in a milieu that supports freedom of the press or if the few privileges afforded to them now may dissipate swiftly. Many have decided to push the envelope and leave no stone unturned, others have waited on the sidelines in hope that not being drawn into a confrontation with SCAF and other powerful political forces will assure them longevity and competition, and others have succumbed to pressure and are simply privately owned extensions of the state media enterprise.

At the end of the day, one cannot describe any private network as purely and truly revolutionary. As of the time of publication, few networks are able to openly discuss issues such as the military budget, the armed forces’ political immunity, and its deep tentacles in the country’s economy. Few stations have attempted to scrutinize Saudi political and economic interests in Egypt. And despite the constant references to enmity with Israel, virtually no station can “advocate” the scrapping of the Camp David Accords or cutting gas supplies to Israel. These have become subjects of the highest national security perhaps even more so than incitement against the military domestically.

The greatest challenge ahead for the private satellite stations will be in the coming months where their resolve, courage and occupational convictions will be tested perhaps more than any other time in modern history. It is their responsibility to assert their independence from power and their role as watchdogs on a ruthless state security apparatus intent on using every means at its disposal to ensure compliance. The very future of Egyptian democracy rests on their ability to rise to the occasion, stand on the right side of history and shepherd a new era in Egyptian media, one that will surely have repercussions and ripples across the region.

They must not submit to the “new red lines” of SCAF, the interim government, the elected parliament, their own bosses and financiers, the Islamist forces, the advisory council, conflicting interpretations of shari’a, the clerical order, the corporate elite, cadres of the former NDP, the political ignorance of indoctrination, or any other force intent on undermining their multi-polarity and commitment to the goals of the revolution.

[Click here for a timeline highlighting major turning points for Egyptian media during the 2011 year] 

Additional Resources

Magda Abu-Fadil, Egyptian Media Grow Bolder Post-Mubarak revolution, But…. Global Journalist (6 April 2011).

Adel Iskandar, Revolution Interrupted? Liberating the Media. Almasry Alyoum (1 April 2011).

Shahira Amin’s interview with CBS on media post-Mubarak, 16 March 2011.

Interviews with youth about the reform of the state media, 29 March 2011.

Al-Jazeera English’s Listening Post on rift between state and private media in the second wave of confrontations between the police and protesters in the week of 19 November.

Listening Post on media in Egypt during the elections and the cacophony between square and voting station.

Article in Egypt’s Community Times entitled “Egyptian Media: Poised on the Precipice.”

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