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Declarations of war: Islamist vs. private media in Egypt

First 200 days of Morsi presidency sees 24 legal complaints against journalists accused of 'insulting president,' leading many to believe Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is targeting local media

Thursday 2 May 2013
Media
A man watches an address by President Mohamed Morsi in a café in Cairo. [Asmaa Waguih/Reuters]
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"I stopped watching television. Now I watch cartoons with my children, movies and religious sermons only," said Qutb Sayed, 40, a driver who lives with his wife and four children in a small one-room flat in Cairo's industrial city of 6 October. "I'm tired of this charged atmosphere: you're liberal, you're secular, you're a kafir [an unbeliever], you're pious – everyone thinks they have the whole truth."

Many Egyptians share Sayed's frustration with television talk shows and the apparent war between Egypt's private and Islamist-leaning media. Daily talk shows feature constant heated debates between opposition figures and Islamists, be they face to face or via telephone. 

War on the airwaves

Some talk shows on private television channels begin with long lectures in which the presenter criticises the presidency and government; some mock authorities; others attack politicians using language that could be deemed offensive, screaming at the camera in loud voices; others go so far as to urge the military to resume administration of the country.

Many Islamist talk shows, on the other hand, attack opponents of President Mohamed Morsi and critics of the government, make fun of them, insult them, question their patriotic credentials or personal ethics, or even accuse them of atheism. 

Amid the spate of insults and personal attacks, Egyptians often find themselves emotionally charged, confused, angry or indifferent.

"I know exactly what television hosts Mahmoud Saad, Reem Magued, Gaber El-Armoty, Youssef El-Husseiny, Motaz El-Demerdash or Mona El-Shazly will say, but I watch them every day, simply because the Brotherhood deserve their criticisms – even though presenters sometimes go too far and use insults," said 40-year-old state employee Heba Mohammed referring to talk show hosts who appear on private television channels.

Some television shows and newspapers are devoted to criticising the Brotherhood, reflecting the anger of both presenters and audiences. Other television programmes and articles try to distance themselves from the ongoing circus and stick to the ABCs of journalism.

Despite their apparent militancy, media persons believe they are being targeted by the authorities.

Liliane Daoud, host of the Soura Al-Kamla talk show on private channel ONtv, describes the situation as an "organised campaign" by the authorities to undermine the role of private media.

"Media is the last tower standing facing the regime," she said. "It opens files that disturb the regime; Islamists have all the authority except for a few parties and some talk shows, so they want these too."

Gamal Eid, human rights activist and head of the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), recognises the problem, but refuses to call it a media 'war' per se. Rather, he sees it as an attack on independent and private media by the presidency, the government and its allies.

According to an ANHRI report released two months ago, 24 legal complaints were filed against journalists and TV hosts for "insulting the president" during the first 200 days of Morsi's presidency, compared to 14 cases referred to Egyptian courts for the same charge throughout the past 115 years, from the late 19th century until the end of the Mubarak era.

Within the past two months, the number of such complaints and lawsuits rose to 30. The most famous was the recent arrest warrant issued for television satirist Bassem Youssef over his weekly comedy show Al-Bernameg

Even though private media suffers from problems, Eid explains, "They aren't criminals."

"Islamists control over 40 percent of the media. If private media makes a mistake, Islamists shouldn't sue them, they should provide a good example by reforming their own private channels or state television and refrain from using hate speech themselves," said Eid. 

Over the last nine months, the Islamist camp has used several tactics to intimidate journalists, including violence, threats, distorting their image and legal action – whether by members of the Brotherhood or its allies. Media Production City, where most private media studios are located, was seized twice during the last year, with Islamists camping outside its doors and threatening to beat television hosts and guests. Some cars were smashed, while guests were barred from entering. 

Ehab El-Zalaky, managing editor of daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, agrees with Daoud.

"I can safely say it's a war on the private media. In fact, the Brotherhood are trying to stop the media from criticising their policies, both by filing legal complaints against them and always questioning their professionalism and credibility," he said. "Their newspapers and television channels do nothing but criticise the media situation, so viewers would think there's nothing wrong in Egypt except the private media." 

Egyptian private media, however, is far from perfect.

"It's true the Egyptian media suffers problems, but you can't hold it 100 percent responsible for the country's crises," asserted El-Zalaky. "The media only sheds light on what's happening on the street. We don't create it." 

"For example, the media didn't invent the Halayeb and Shalateen issue. There were statements by the Sudanese vice president. Should we ignore them?" he asked. "Now the government should be transparent and issue a statement, but instead they attack media and claim we made up the story."

The presidency recently came under fire after it failed to respond to statements made by Sudanese officials who said that the regions of Halayeb and Shalateen were Sudanese territory following a visit by Morsi to Sudan in early April.

Hazem Ghorab, head of the Egypt 25 television channel, which is owned by the Muslim Brotherhood, believes the problem is that "when you find those who made their fortune from an unofficial marriage with the Mubarak regime heading newspapers and private channels that don't follow journalistic standards, this must provoke anyone who cares for our profession."

"I promised that the Egypt 25 channel would be a role model for media standards. I invite the youngest researcher to review our material and he will know how credible I am," said Ghorab, who says his channel maintains the highest professional standards, although many media critics consider it one-sided.

Ghorab denies the channel is biased. It is, he said, more like "a mirror that shows society for what it is. The owners of the channel belong to a political current that is the largest in the country and they appear on our shows in proportion to their size. The Communist Party, the leftist Tagammu Party and the rest are minor groups that lack the Brotherhood's popularity, thus they appear in our shows in proportion to their small size."

E-militias

"Anyone who works in online media knows that there are pressure groups in the form of hundreds of e-militias, who sign up using fake accounts and have a recurrent interaction method," said El-Zalaky. "It usually happens when opinion pieces or features tackling topics like a new decision by the president or Brotherhood leaders like [Khairat] El-Shater, which are usually sensitive issues for the Brotherhood."

"Also, when there's a poll, for example, asking if you are happy with the president's or government's performance during the past 100 days or so, suddenly you find an orchestrated attack by some groups to change the poll results," El-Zalaky added. "It's strange that the Brotherhood are preoccupied with the media and Internet so much that they think it is their number-one priority. If they put half this effort into solving the country's problems, it would have been much better."

Online campaigns on social media don't end with comments or polls; some use YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Both Daoud and television host Dina Abdel-Rahman were recently attacked for abruptly ending telephone calls with Brotherhood sources. In Daoud's case, she had to stop her source because she was ten minutes behind in her programme; in Abdel-Rahman's case, because the Brotherhood source accused her of inciting violence and refused to comment on a video showing Islamists torturing opponents in a mosque in Cairo's Moqattam district following clashes outside Brotherhood headquarters in March.

Difficulties finding sources

Even though some private newspapers and television programmes are biased against the Brotherhood, others who try to maintain the balance and do their job writing balanced stories face great difficulties finding Brotherhood sources.

"It is almost impossible to get a source on the record from the Muslim Brotherhood. You might get a source who answers you but refuses to give his name, probably so he can later retreat from what he said. Or they will decline to comment altogether or transfer you to another source," said El-Zalaky. 

Abdel-Rahman, host of the Zay El-Shams morning show, echoes El-Zalaky's concerns, saying that, even if you get the right Brotherhood source on the record in the studio or over the phone, they usually have a scheme to waste air time without saying much.

"They start with their famous statement, 'Please don't interrupt,' but then go on for half an hour without answering the question," said Abdel-Rahman. "So you interrupt and they tell you 'I asked you not to interrupt, let me finish my idea or argument.' You tell them, 'But you need to answer the question,' and they are ready with the next famous accusation: 'You are biased, the channel you work in is feloul [remnants of the former regime], where do you get your money from?"

Abdel-Rahman added: "The baseless accusations go on and they try to put you on the defensive and make it personal not professional. In the end, they usually waste so much air time and rarely answer the questions."

Some television shows have stopped hosting Islamists because they can't get anything out of them or because they declare themselves biased and refuse to host 'liars,' 'traitors'  or 'murderers,' which both camps accuse each other of being.   

"When the Brotherhood candidate won presidential elections and before that the Islamic majority won parliamentary elections, some leftists, secularists and liberals couldn't accept the democratic result of the polls and rushed to use their TV stations and newspapers as weapons against the people's choice," said Ghorab. 

Censorship fears

"The legal aspect is the most worrying thing for me now that the Islamist-majority Shura Council [the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers] is preparing media laws that could come out any time," said Daoud. "We could see more journalists going to jail."

Abdel-Rahman, on the other hand, is not so worried about the future.

"Media freedoms, especially for privately-owned media, which we have struggled for during the past few years, cannot be taken away now," she said. "We hosted 6 April Youth Group founder Ahmed Maher and 6 April member Israa Abdel-Fattah when they got out of prison in 2008; we covered the revolution; we were not afraid when the police withdrew in January 2011 before the [Mubarak] regime fell."

She added: "The media is much stronger. We now have very diverse shows: investigative programmes, talk shows, serious programmes, comedies, everything. Egyptians can choose from a wide spectrum; they're not forced to watch only one thing."

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