With Morsi Out, Uphill Battle for Independent Media Intensifies

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In the flash of a commercial break, the Egyptian military’s massacre of over fifty pro-Muslim Brotherhood  protestors at the Republican Guard headquarters on July 8 turned into a zealously polarized media affair. It was the latest in a series of reminders that—despite the newest round of political reshufflings—there is still little space for independent media in Egypt. 

In a well-documented trend, since July 3rd the Egyptian media—state and private alike—has quickly aligned with the military, privileging the officially vetted version of events. Following the killings state and private channels like CBC and ONTV marginalized the MB narrative and aired nationalist songs and images of military prowess. News anchors openly called the Brotherhood terrorists threatening the state. Guests reflected largely the military line that the Brotherhood was entirely to blame. Criticism was aired, but in few outlets.

The army’s closure of (incitement and sectarian-prone) Islamist channels and arrests of journalists on July 3rd aided the quick dissemination of this polarizing news narrative.

“Terrorists try to storm the Republican Guard… and 51 killed,” ran the front headline of the state-owned Al Gomhouriya, echoing the domineering discourse.                                  

Independence Interrupted

In his weekly column in the private Al Shorouk, Bassem Youssef on July 9 rationalized the military’s Brotherhood crackdown: if Mohamed Morsi was still in power, Youssef posited, he and his supporters would not be doing the same—but far worse.

“My dear reader, in the parallel world, you won’t read this article because its writer will either be imprisoned or killed. You will switch on your TV to watch [pro-Brotherhood independent satellite channel] Misr 25 broadcasting live footage of the burning studios of private TV channels. The people would be chanting "It’s done, the people have purged the media."

Youssef’s sentiments (though often sarcastically expressed) likely resonate with a public largely disillusioned by Mohamed Morsi’s dangerously divisive and despotic year in power, as well as with a media cadre threatened by the presidency’s rising record of suppression. The Islamist channels shut down such as Al Hafiz, by all measures, violated basic codes of journalist conduct with their often-hate charged rhetoric., while in the days that followed, Brotherhood online media machine continued to disseminate distorted information.  

But this polarizing media coverage also has serious long-term implications: it further endangers independent media in Egypt, which is already facing a steep uphill battle.

“That [media] polarization has been going on for much of the last nine months, but it really reached a crescendo on the 30th and the days after,” explained Georgetown Media Professor Adel Iskandar. “It’s a very unhealthy and really problematic environment.”

Indeed, this coverage reflects a long-known norm in news gathering in Egypt: shaped by a particular political context and regulatory structure, the local press’ coverage of the transitioning Egyptian state routinely comes attached with a business or political agenda.

“The Egyptian media scene post-Mubarak is very cacophonous,” Iskandar said. “This chaos was initially celebrated because it basically was a steamer that was building up for so long that all of a sudden was released. The expectation was that there would be a system in which the Egyptian media would find itself, gravitating more towards basic principles of journalistic practice and professionalism. And that unfortunately has not happened.”

He added, “Even the basic sort of civility that exists between journalists as individuals who share the same trade and struggle has effectively, it seems, been broken.”

Creating Alternatives

From amidst these muddled media territories, on June 30 a new Egyptian news site launched that hopes to serve as an independent and progressive alternative to this entrenching status quo. 

Called Mada Masr, the project is the brainchild of Editor Lina Attalah and much of the staff from the former Egypt Independent. Al Masry Al Youm abruptly closed Egypt Independent last spring under politicized circumstances: Al Masry Al Youm officially claimed it was out of financial need, but Attalah and other insiders say it was because of their too-independent editorial line.

“We didn’t spend too much time savoring what it means to be unemployed,” the staff wrote in a welcome back note on the Mada Masr website. “We wanted to re-appropriate our journalism on this [June 30] heated day because it is through the prism of this craft that we engage with politics and activism.”

After working with Al Masry Al Youm for five years, Attalah intentionally sought out independent funders and grants for the project to avoid previous pitfalls. Attalah explained that she and the largely young cadre at Mada Masr placed particular emphasis on creating a sustainable business plan fit for the highly skilled and creative team.

“The main business model is basically not to rely on one business man, which is basically how all mainstream media in Egypt are practicing, and which is a very comprising factor in terms of the editorial content of the newspaper,” Attalah said.

The Mada Masr team and website are not yet fully operative and only producing at half the intended capacity. Currently only in English, the team plans to have content in both English and Arabic—an unorthodox approach in a media system where English-language media has generally had greater leeway.

According to Deputy Editor Amira Saleh-Ahmed, the biggest challenge Mada Masr faces now is the most basic: bearing witness.  

“I think the biggest challenge is to be present all over the place,” Saleh-Ahmed said.” Because everyone is feeling so intent on pushing their side of their story, it becomes very difficult to be find out what is really happening if you’re not there.”

She added, “At this point we are just trying to go back to the basics of balanced coverage. It’s become a media war and a war of information. And there have been a lot of causalities in the media in the last two weeks. In the middle, the one big tragedy in all of this is the truth.”

In its debut week, Mada Masr candidly discussed the political and professional considerations in calling the latest wave of events a coup. In another, it reported from two funerals: the first a funeral for a Brotherhood member—which the rest of the Egyptian media largely ignored—and the second for a Manial resident killed during clashes with Brotherhood supporters—which the local press covered in depth. Based on reporting from outside of Cairo, another story called into question the prevailing military narrative that Sinai is in shambles.

An opinion piece by the blogger and journalist Sarah Carr received particular online attention for its sharp criticism of the media’s dehumanizing and distorting coverage at the expense of productive and contentious public discourse. She prefaced her argument by delineating her strong disdain for the Brotherhood—but then demonstrated the pitfalls of identity based political and media battles.

Media in the Interim

With so many entrenched barriers still in place—from the persisting political, military, and business interventions in the governing structures of media institutions, to the lack of legal and professional protections for journalists to assert their independence, to the absence of autonomous media codes and professional bodies to empower the profession—independent media in Egypt need no-strings-attached support more than ever.

“The commitment of a lot of privately owned media to what we call the deep state in Egypt in its police or military form has been there for a long time, and it played its role in leading the mobilization around the 30th of the June,” Attalah explained. “The Islamist media as we know is also completely engineered by the Islamist political leaders. So the way the media is governed is completely conducive to this polarization.”

Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the June 30 protests, the private opposition media covered the campaign extensively and portrayed the Brotherhood as a conspiracy-ridden entity. Over on the next screen, the state- and Islamist media tried to marginalize the initiative and deny the opposition any legitimacy. In one of his final speeches, Morsi notoriously singled out several owners of opposition channels as enemies, further personalizing the media battle.

As an unprecedented millions amassed in support of Tamarod, broadcasters at state-owned channels were told to prioritize pro-Morsi gatherings that day. The images of uprising citizens, however, could not be long ignored.

When the military announced its intervention on July 3, Egypt’s independent TV studios went into nationalistic, celebratory overdrive. The entire ONTV staff was shown cheering on air, Egyptian talk show host Hala Sarhan was seen in tears, Amr Adib appeared draped in Egypt’s flag, while Riham Said stood as the national anthem was played.  Anti-Brotherhood rhetoric aired on state channels—which just weeks before had been fighting claims of brotherhoodization—and on the widely watched private news channels—which the year before had helped propagate the movement for the military’s removal. Private opposition newspapers like Al Shorouk and Al Watan joined in to an unprecedented degree.

“I think the scope of the polarization is only felt when it’s collectively conducted by different media,” Attalah explained.

In the days that followed the military’s return many Egyptian citizens and journalists took to the streets to protest international media coverage, like CNN’s and Al Jazeera, they deemed stacked against the popular will and the narrative of not-a-coup. Violent assaults, intimidation, and military arrests of journalists in the field continued, this time with a rising xenophobic air.

On July 8, twenty-two Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt resigned, reportedly over the channels biased reporting line. In an Army press conference the following day, Egyptian journalists chased out an Al Jazeera correspondent—a troubling sign of eroding press civility.

On July 11 Al Ahram’s General Assembly sacked the Chairman and two top editors who had been appointed by the Islamist-dominated Shura Council. The mechanism for replacing them remains unclear.

“Right now we are caught in the frenzy of the moment,” Iskandar explained. “There is a lot of unverified information spilling out onto the airwaves. And perhaps it’s been in the interest of the security services in Egypt to see that Egyptians are confused by what’s going on around them. The basic mantra of freedom of the press has really been violated by the military already in my opinion.”

He added, “There is a lot of incitement and hate speech on both sides, and unfortunately there has not yet been an established code of conduct that was agreed upon by journalists, practitioners, broadcasters, and editors in chief.”

In an article on state- and self-censorship in aftermath of the Brotherhood massacre, Mada Masr reported on the experiences of two journalists from the local Arabic press who claimed that editors had instructed them to cover only the army perspective.

Salah-Ahmed explained some of the mindset behind the editors and journalists who accept these patriarchal pressures.

“It has been portrayed as a fight against the enemy,” Salah-Ahmed said. “At this point people think that supporting the army and security apparatus is so important, that even if you have to lie or twist the truth or just show part of one side it’s okay because it’s for the greater good.”

For Attalah, these reoccurring episodes reinforce the need for further independent spaces to support Egyptian journalists seeking an alternative way.

“We see this with young journalists working at places like Shorouk and Al Masry Al Youm who have grown extremely disillusioned by the restrictions on the coverage in the last couple of days,” Attalah said. “The problem is that leaving is also a luxury, because there are no alternative spaces for these guys. This calls for the need to invest in independent structures not attached to any side or anyone’s money or political aspirations as much as possible.”

Miriam Berger is a freelance-writer and Fulbright and CASA Fellow in Egypt researching on Egyptian print media. 

Photo: Stefano Zucchiatti 

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