Egypt media: Politics and the growth of polarisation

Ekram Ibrahim , Sunday 30 Dec 2012

The relative absence of accurate news in public media brought about the rise of private media to act as one, yet citizens remain both uninformed and frustrated

Media City
Media City (Photo: AP)

Almost everything in Egypt is currently polarised: the political players, the people and the media as well.

This polarisation has brought up a society and a media system suffering from borderline personality disorder, where black and white thinking prevails.

"For the same event you find different coverage depending on the channel you are watching,” Ammar Faid, Muslim Brotherhood member, researcher and former member of President Mohamed Morsi elections campaign, told Ahram Online.

Despite the increase in media outlets, it is becoming difficult to find a “fact-based truth". The audience is overwhelmed with so many political talk shows, different newspapers and emerging online news content.

“A lot of rumours, twisting and taking events out of context is being practiced now by the media; journalists need to dig deep before they air or publish,” Yosri Fouda, veteran Talk Show presenter at ONTV, told Ahram Online.

Islamists attack

The frustration of some people, mainly political Islamists groups, have prompted them to stage a sit-in in front of the Media City (where different private channels air their programmes) in 6 October city on the outskirts of Cairo.

Islamists also attacked the Liberal Wafd Party and its newsroom headquarters and made threats to satirical talk show anchor Bassem Youssef.

“Many media players and media institutions are now facing a serious threat,” Magdy Sarhan, Editor of Wafd newspaper, told Ahram Online.

Islamists have been consistently targeting media and opposition figures in their recent protests, chanting slogans such as “the people want the purification of the media."

“The media on both sides is hysterical and lacks common sense,” Faid added..

The fight continues, as the Brotherhood leadership warns its people from believing the private or independent media. Recently, Mohamed Badie, Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood called on the people to "care less about the misleading media outlets, which produce lies.”

“They believe that media can change reality and that is why they want to fight the media,” Fouda told Ahram Online.

Media landscape

Although the classical role of the media is to inform and entertain, during intense socio-political times in Egypt the media is one significant political player, if not the main contributor.

After the 25 January revolution, several satellite news channels were opened and different newspapers and online news websites were launched. The Islamists’ voices, suppressed during Hosni Mubarak’s era, are represented in 17 new television channels, according to Cairo University media professor Inas Abu Youssef.

However, before the revolution, the Salafists aired a number of channels, including El-Hekma, El-Hafez and El-Nas. Those channels were orchestrated by Salafist sheikhs and were considered highly politicised.

Many other private channels were opened as well after Mubarak's regime was toppled in 2011. The most significant is the CBC, which is owned by businessman Mohamed El-Amin.

El-Amin, who owns 16 satellite television channels, is accused by many of backing Mubarak's entourage. He has been working outside Egypt in different Gulf countries and returned home after the revolution.

Several television channels are controlled by politicians. Sayed El-Badawy, head of liberal Wafd Party, owns Al-Hayat Satellite Television channel while Naguib Sawiris, founder of Free Egyptians Liberal Party, has been the owner of ONTV until early December before selling it to a Kuwaiti company.

The Muslim Brotherhood owns Jan25 channel and Salafist Sheikh Abu Islam owns Al-Umma Salafist satellite channel.

Abu Islam faced a charge of burning the Bible during the demonstrations in front of US embassy due to the low-budget movie insulting Islam's prophet Mohamed, in September.

News packaging business

Accordingly, for most cases but not all, the media has failed to deliver unbiased news packages.

Each side lines up events with its own interpretation. “I don’t believe in neutrality, each businessman has his own biases and this is acceptable but at least they need to be reasonable,” Faid added.

Private media uses words such as "Brotherhoods’ acquisition," "brotherhoodisation of the state," and "Brotherhoods’ militants."

“They frame the events in a way that portrays Brotherhood members as monsters,” Faid commented.

Meanwhile, the Islamists channels scrutinise the personal lives of their opponents and attack leading figures. They portray their opponents as “atheists,” “remnants of the old regime” and “agents to foreign countries.”

“Because the anchors on those channels are sheikhs, in most cases they have nothing to do but to criticise the personal lives of their counterparts,” Faid said.

The Brotherhood argued that the media “overreacted” when the Wafd Party headquarters was attacked while 28 branches of its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, were set on fire and it was portrayed as a “normal” reaction to Morsi's constitutional decree.

Another concern is that the Islamists channels bring Islamic sheikhs and scholars to comment on politics. This act gives weight to the sheikh or scholar and whatever he is saying, even though he is not specialised in politics or economics.

However, the scene is not that dim.

“We can never deny the professional work done by ONTV for example, those media specialists are doing their best to find the truth,” Rasha Abdulla, Associate Mass Communication professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), told Ahram Online.

State media position

The deficiency in the state media has put the private media in a situation where it has to serve the public more than serving the agendas of its businessmen.

“As the state media fails to do its role, the private media is trying to bring the truth to people,” Abdulla told Ahram Online.

After the revolution, many expected the media to have more freedom. All eyes were on the state media to let go of its support for the regime and serve the people; yet, this only took place for a short period, critics say.

The state media was accused of backing the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's ruler at the time. 

“The state media in Egypt has to be the media of the public rather than serving the state,” Abdulla said.

One example is the “Maspero massacre,” when the army personnel ran over Coptic protesters with military vehicles, leaving at least 25 dead in October 2011. The state media called on the people to take the streets to support the army who were being “attacked by Coptic protesters", giving a distorted image of what has actually taken place.

"In the middle of all those challenges, we live in a world of remote controls, where the audience has the final say on who to follow and who to disregard," Fouda commented.

"Criticized you will be, no matter how good and professional you are."

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