Third Eye Blind: The State of the Egyptian Media

Consensus is nonexistent in contemporary Egypt. Politicians, academics, and activists comprise the actors in a perpetual tragedy, a circular argument filled with nonsensical disagreement and contention over ulterior motives and selfish pecuniary advantages. Yet, one subject over which there is relative agreement on its significance and timeliness is restructuring Egypt’s mediascape. The media in is dubbed as the root-of-all-evil, not only from columnists and commentators, but also from the two-presidential candidates, who called on journalists and presenters to rise to the challenge and assume responsibility for the country’s lingering mayhem (albeit for their own political reasons).

Before addressing a pertinent solution to the foregoing claim of the media’s culpability in fomenting an intolerant environment, a brief overview of the mediascape will provide the context for solutions towards assuming an independent role. One can divide the Egyptian media sector into: official, quasi-official, partisan, and alternative. All print media in Egypt fits into the first three types, given the monopoly of the state on the publishing houses and the licenses needed to issue a periodical (which have not changed after two uprisings and a military-takeover). The state controls the entirety of broadcast media—specifically the terrestrial TV and radio channels. The de facto leader’s interests, motives, and narrative dictate the mandates, programs, and editorial policies.

The topography of the mediascape in Egypt foreshadows the sector’s impact on the country’s stale transition. The official media encompass all TV channels, radio conduits, and news websites associated with the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), the Egypt News Center (ENC), and Middle East News Agency (MENA). The ERTU has a monopoly on the country’s airwaves and prevents private channels from broadcasting terrestrially, with the exception of two radio entertainment channels whose owner’s maintained a close relationship with former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

The print media has some room to maneuver, but not to the extent of transcending commonly understood red lines. One may categorize the press as official, where newspapers editors are appointed by the state-controlled Higher Press Council, and quasi-official, where the media elite launch periodicals to gain prestige or curry favor with the country’s regime. Advocating change or conducting thorough investigative journalism is largely absent from the print media.

The partisan press is known for its toothless approach in dealing with the military establishment and directs its attention at local politics with a focus on rhetorical battles with competing parties. Given the country’s 36 percent illiteracy rate and the dire economic malaise, print media falls short of broadcast media in terms of influence—especially the satellite channels which give the impression of independence from state control.

Satellite television affordability and access in Egypt has increased annually, but almost all channels reach the circa 30 percent of Egyptian households through NileSat, the state owned-and-operated satellite communications company. The state’s reach into all conduits of information is undeniable. To escape this monotone narrative, Egyptians resort to alternative media, including the blogosphere, social media, and the pulpit. Religious leaders and Islamist parties have effectively used the last to mobilize their congregations. Alternative media, relatively unhindered by the state, remains the most popular among the young dissidents. Social media and blogs partially drove the January 25 uprising with the help of the pulpit, prompting the electoral victories for he now-disbanded Muslim Brotherhood.

Tenable solutions for media independence in Egypt arise in Articles 212 and 213 of the newly ratified constitution. Given the increased volatility in the mediascape, detailed and meticulous regulations ought to be proposed in order to implement constitutional guarantees for a free and accountable media regime that contributes to development, social cohesion, and democracy, rather than contention and cataclysm.

Article 212 states:

Along the same token, article 213 states:

For the first time, Egypt enshrined a free, impartial, and independent press and media watchdog organization in the country’s constitution, which if appropriately regulated, can contribute towards a more open political system. However, the devil is in the details. The reference to the phrase “the law shall determine the composition and regulations of the Organization” in both articles annuls the hope of an impartial and independent media. With Egypt’s legislative procedures on-hold until the election of a new lower house of parliament by the end of this year, no regulatory framework is forthcoming. Nonetheless, the following components will mitigate fears of media-driven polarization and state domination:

i) Access: An objective, professional, and equal standard should regulate those with access to a nationwide audience. Moderators and writers should have the proper credentials and be held accountable for language that provokes strife and contention over political, religious, ethnic, or sectarian motives.

ii) Ownership: Transparent and clear criteria for press and media ownership in Egypt ought to be implemented and applied to all Egyptians, Arabs, and foreigners investing in the country’s media. The NPO and NMO must also apply capital ceilings, and government agencies and civil society associations must regularly audit these outlets to check the flow of cash and ensure equal opportunity for all media conduits.

iii) Editorial Policy: The NPO and NMO must standardize a code of conduct and monitor the ethics and professional practices of the sector. The blurred lines between views, news, and incitement need to be resolved. News must cite multiple sources, offer balanced commentary, and be retracted in case of error. The new standard must prohibit obscenity, name-calling, fear mongering, and incitement against fellow citizens, partisan foes, or nations.

iv) Ombudsman: Every outlet ought to include a regulator whose task is to mediate, check, and rectify reckless actions with the predilection to compensate the aggrieved and reprimand the aggressor, whether in the newsroom or beyond, in accordance with the law.

v) Advertising: The official advertising budget must remain in the hands of an impartial nonpartisan committee to ensure the legality, fairness, and adherence to professional ethics and practices in advertising policy. A simple phone call between a minister and an editor or producer will no longer suffice to guarantee the outlet huge sums of money to whitewash a ministry’s failed policies and predicaments.

vi) Oversight: To ensure objectivity, professionalism, and integrity in the NPO and NMO, members must be journalists, academics, and lawyers, peer-selected for their impartiality, probity, and virtue to uphold all the ethical provisions of journalism. Members must maintain the culture of openness, respectful debate, and transparency that the Egyptians demand. The United Kingdom’s Office of Communication (Ofcom) provides a model for the NPO and NMO in this regard.

A new media culture that embraces truth, objectivity, and integrity instead of sensationalism, fabrication, and hyperbole will set the tone for an Egypt in dire need of consolidating democratic principles. No democratic country in the world, by definition, depends on demagoguery and misinformation to support the grip of a military establishment, theological party, or rich elites. The public debate must include the restructuring of this mediascape to offer society and political parties equal opportunity in reaching citizens—sans favoritism, parroting, and provocation.

Mohamed Selim is a media scholar focusing on political communication in the Arab World with the University of Osnabrück based in Germany. Twitter @moselim

Image: The massive state media building, Maspero, lies on the Nile in close proximity to the ministry of foreign affairs. (Photo: Wikimedia)