If there was any doubt about who the presidential frontrunner would be in Egypt`s May 2014 elections, the Egyptian media made sure to strongly suggest that then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the only choice. No matter how prominent the other possible presidential candidates were, each was unceremoniously sidelined, discounted, or even ridiculed. Most soon withdrew their names from contention.
Owing to the media’s unwavering support for al-Sisi, the scene was set for a return to a state-aligned media monolith. Since his election, all of the media figures—owners and journalists who had begun to operate under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and had offered him emphatic support along the way—now found a new champion. Today, many popular television hosts who came to prominence after or as a result of the January 25 Revolution, or are considered less than enthusiastic supporters of al-Sisi, are being purged from the airwaves, albeit evidently through acquiescent internal media organizational actions. This state of affairs came on the heels of a few years of incredibly lively and diverse (and sometimes caustic) debate in the country`s mass media.
Since the revolution, the media have taken center stage in major political debates and conflicts. Media operators of every ilk have seen a rise to prominence when the country was still oscillating politically and much of the Egyptian population were turning to them for guidance in this process. Near the end of Morsi’s calamitously miscalculated presidency (30 June 2012--3 July 2013), he turned to naming the owners of television stations that opposed him, blaming them for inciting hatred against him. Nowadays al-Sisi has more than once singled out local media with the task of “owning up to their national duties.” He has especially called on existing media outlets to continue the roles they played in 2011 and in 2013 during the takeover of power following the 30 June protests. However, with at least twelve journalists behind bars (CPJ) and with narrowing margins for free speech and opposition, these “duties” seem to be bound to the regime more so than the goals of journalism as a profession.
While there have been instances of direct government intervention or censorship, such as the shutting down of opposition Islamist channels, the majority of censorship now comes from within a zealous state-aligned media establishment. The result is that the media in Egypt today is essentially the voice of the military state. Some attempts at creating truly independent and professional news media continue to provide voices that operate outside of the government nexus. However, they operate within a media establishment designed to drown their voices out in a constant chorus of deference to the state. Some view this phenomenon as a part of the general public’s support for the current government, others may see it as a hallmark of a militarized government with authoritarian tendencies.
“When the dream is lost, the course of action left for [militaristic/authoritarian] regimes is one that starts with a television station or radio broadcast, and ends with tanks, planes, and guns,” said Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the veteran Egyptian journalist and perennial presidential advisor/commentator, in his 1984 book, Between Journalism and Politics. While the model of authoritarian control of the media at the time was exclusively state-centered. Today, this concept still exists, but with more diverse methods of application. Heikal introduces an important paradigm with reference to media in Egypt. Until private media outlets began appearing in Egypt with the advent of satellite television, the country only knew of local media as an arm of the state and a means of achieving consensus and providing a framework for national unity. It is therefore not entirely surprising that many of the current media outlets were able to seamlessly answer al-Sisi’s call to fulfill that role once more. One of the most notable trends in private media is the marginalization of voices of opposition whether operationally or by direct (yet ostensibly internal) censorship.
News broadcasters and talk show hosts such as Reem Maged (formerly of ONTV) and Dina AbdelRahman (formerly of CBC) were frozen out of their private television stations where they dominated the airwaves in primetime slots. The common feature across the cases of departing media figures is the prominent role they played as voices in the January 25 Revolution, which is when they became household names. They were all liberals who opposed Morsi, whose media supporters had already been taken off the air. They were not averse to hosting guests or entertaining topics spawned by the June 30 demonstrations that could be seen as running averse to the regime. In the case of Reem Maged, she cited no ill-will with her broadcaster, but that her “convictions” do not align with the station’s direction. Perhaps the most prominent, and most covered case was that of Bassem Youssef’s political satire show station-hopping until finally calling it a day after the show was suspended from Saudi-owned MBC Masr station in June 2014 after being dropped by Egyptian-owned CBC (November 2013). Youssef was the most forthcoming of his peers in alluding to harassment and pressures from his broadcaster as reasons for his departure. He was uncompromising in his criticism and satire. Others who are not as rabble-rousing, have remained on air, receiving a mere, “pinch of the ear” as the Egyptian saying goes.
On 25 October 2014, the CEO of AlNahar TV walked into the dressing room of prominent Egyptian talk-show host Mahmoud Saad moments before the airing of his live nightly television show to let him know that he would not be presenting that night. Saad dutifully obliged, leaving the station and taking his production team with him, according to some of the show’s journalists, who declined to be identified by name for this report. The night before, Saad had hosted a guest who critically psychoanalyzed al-Sisi, and who, among other things, spoke about the psychological effects of popular support for the military. The guest, Manal Omar, also mentioned a 1967 Egyptian military defeat by Israel that led to a seven-year occupation of Sinai. The same day that the show aired, units of the Egyptian military were under attack in Sinai.
AlNahar, a private station, never revealed why Saad was taken off the air, but its management issued a public statement saying "substantial changes" would be made to its political programs. "The channel will prohibit the appearance of a number of guests who promote ideas that weaken the morale of the Egyptian army,” the statement noted. Saad was on air again a few days later. His only comment on the incident was, “I honestly don’t know why I was not on air these past few days.” This seems to be the case with many such cases, making any analysis of Egyptian media today more complicated. While the patterns are discernable, the causes are not as clear-cut or direct.
Constructing al-Sisi’s Media
The run-up to the 2014 elections gave Egyptians a very clear taste of what was to come. In interviews by major private television stations with al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabbahi (who alone endured as an opposing candidate), the difference in treatment was stark. Al-Sisi gave pre-taped roundtable interviews to reverential interviewers at special locations, as if dispensing wisdom to studious deputies. Sabbahi, who sees himself as a torchbearer for contemporary Nasserism, only gave live, in-studio interviews with typically probing and combative hosts taking him to task over his presidential program and recent statements. Sabbahi was treated as an opposition candidate, al-Sisi as a president.
When he was defense minister, among the first actions taken with regards to the media by the government under his command after the deposing of President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, was to shut down two newspapers and all nine privately-owned, pro-Morsi television stations airing out of Egypt. Many of the employees and owners were subsequently jailed.
It was clear that the relationship between the regime and the media was going to be crucial during al-Sisi`s early days in power. On 3 May 2014, during one of his taped roundtable discussions (this one at his residence), he met with a who`s-who of Egyptian media and lectured them on the importance of media in "unifying the nation." Within four months of his election, he held many more such meetings with representatives from the media and journalism institutions. None challenged him, though a few did propose progressive steps that could be taken for media freedom. The media establishment and its prominent figures met al-Sisi, more than any other single civilian cohort or special interest group during his time in power.
The state’s obvious preoccupation with the role of the media has reaped dividends, as the popular media has shifted its coverage to support the government, which has inevitably resulted in biased reporting and internal censorship. While many journalists face real dangers covering protests or Muslim Brotherhood-related activities, their ability to perform even routine duties has been constrained by a media hierarchy that takes its cues from the regime. As much as they may fear corporal punishment, it is the general state of the industry that keeps most in check.
Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), observed, “There is a return to the Mubarak-era system of unofficially blacklisted public figures who are persona non-grata on television stations.” According to Eid, privately-owned media with allegiances to the regime decide amongst themselves to bar certain guests from appearing as pundits.
As Mohammed Helmy, former head of the reports unit at CBC Xtra in Cairo exclaimed, “It is clear that the media agreed with the President that ‘there is a war on terror and the media must play its part.’ However, these are very loose terms and unfortunately many media organizations are translating them to mean that anyone who has any opinion contrary to that of the state’s must be restricted [from appearing or publishing].”
Within print and online media, many publications are attempting to maintain the momentum of the 25 January Revolution that mobilized a generation of independent hard-hitting journalists. Publications such as AlBadil and Mada Masr (established in 2013 by a group of independent journalists) continue to produce the kind of reporting and analysis that would not be allowed in any of the aforementioned outlets. However, it is almost certain that this genre of journalism would not be allowed to take form in a medium such as television, the most wide-reaching in Egypt. Morever, the new reforms have also suggested more immanent and fundamental changes in the sector.
The 2014 constitution had introduced new legislation that stipulates the dissolution of the Ministry of Information and the creation of an independent regulatory body for the media and press. The new clauses offer a chance for a situation where the state does not directly interfere in media anymore. However, the vagueness of this clause, and the relationship of the current media establishment with the state means that this separation may not always be a given. Vague laws and regulations seem to be the state’s main strategies in controlling television media. “I work for a Lebanese television station, and must keep a few jobs because you never know when police may shut us down,” said an executive of a politicized television station who requested anonymity for himself and the station that only employs a small team in its Cairo office. The source claims that despite applying for full-fledged licensing, his station has been waiting for a response from Egyptian authorities for over a year. The official reasoning behind the court-ordered closures of the vast majority of the television stations that were ransacked and shutdown by Egyptian security forces, was that they were operating without a license. This includes stations like Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr and the Muslim Brotherhood-allied stations that were shutdown after 3 July 2013.
In theory, the new 2014 constitution may help rectify this obscurity. Chief editor of AlBadil newspaper Khaled El-Balshy is ambivalent about the constitutional amendments: “We are either looking forward to an oppressive system in Egypt between private businesses and the state that will only get more oppressive in the future, or we have a glimmer of hope in new progressive legislation that, if applied, could lead to a truly free press.”
A longer version of this article will appear as a chapter in the 2015 edition of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual publication, Attacks on the Press.