Nearly all-Egyptian households are tuned in to their favourite Ramadan drama this summer. Fiery talk shows featuring political analysts, protestors and activists have slowly grown out of favour. Newspaper readers are focused on news of terrorism in surrounding countries and critiques of television dramas.
Unsurprisingly, Egyptians are slowly losing interest in their media. The change in the media’s role and presence in the political and economic life of the country is quite noticeable in comparison to the years following the January 25 revolution when the media flurry around parliamentary elections, presidential elections and other critical political events shaped public opinion.
Did Egyptian media lose its credibility? To a certain extent it has. Before June 30, Egyptian media was transforming quickly into a freer, more professional and ethical media. The wave of political unrest in the country and the region at large had shaken the once stale media turning the media-scape into a vibrant and exciting one.
In addition, the previously dominant state-media and government sanctioned private media lost ‘control’ over the flow of information. Egypt witnessed a boom in private television stations and newspapers beginning just days after the fall of the Mubarak regime.
But perhaps most unexpectedly, citizen journalists became key to coverage of political events as they disseminated information directly to both audiences and traditional media journalists and media professionals via digital and social media channels. They frequently had access when media did not, and they gave more balanced coverage than their professional counterparts did. The voices of activists, protesters and dissenters also became an integral part of media content.
The media-scape became incredibly diverse. But it also became dangerously polarised, incited violence and did contribute to the division in Egyptian society.
Today, that feeling that media quality and professionalism is quickly deteriorating is mostly because our media personalities are changing, programming is less interesting and newspapers are struggling to maintain a readership. The majority of media analysts believe that this is because the state closed down several channels and a newspaper affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, paving the way for a new trend to emerge. That of a unified political message, whether through satellite television broadcasts, radio or newspapers initiated by media professionals reverting to long time comfortable media performance that includes touting leaders and practicing self-censorship. Although, attempts by individuals to remain neutral have been observed.
However, I do not believe this is the full picture. To begin with, Egypt did experience an increase in private media development, with private television stations and newspapers rapidly developing as a direct result of the freedom afforded by the revolution and mostly because owners wanted to have their political influence projected. However, as the political situation stabilises, many owners are looking at profits rather than influence. It is best instead to consider this a phase in what should be viewed as a cyclical process, with media being founded, becoming popular under certain circumstances and declining. Not all of Egypt’s media will survive in the future but that does not mean that we will not witness new media or new types of ownership.
It is unfortunate, that at this time, state media has little social prestige and small market share, political party press has declined, and private ownership is suffering market forces. That was hardly the expected outcome after the revolutionary changes in the political system in 2011 onwards. But this is the state of affairs.
Nonetheless, Egyptians are more informed today and information has become more valued. They have had their taste of Bassem Youssef, Reem Maged, Yosri Foda, Belal Fadl and others who have given a balanced coverage of events and diverse opinions.
And despite the emergence and popularity of programmes that broadcast nothing but ‘leaked videos and recordings’ and other non-factual material, it does not mean that Egyptian citizens have no other choices.
Media figures including Sherif Amer continue to fight the trend of unethical programming and strives to give us independent coverage, the young journalists behind Mada Masr are attempting to give a genuinely balanced account of political and economic events of Egypt, whilst another group of journalists have launched the Yanayir portal to bring objective news and commentary to its readers.
There are moments in newspaper coverage that should not go unnoticed such as El-Masry El-Youm’s series of reports on police brutality. Running for several days, the articles highlighted continued abuses, indicating the beginning of a new development signalling that institutions are not beyond reproach.
In the meantime, Tarek Attia has launched a hyper local newspaper, building a community around his downtown newspaper and Fatemah Farag is helping create a market for local newspapers in the most remote towns in Egypt. Egyptians also have their social media.
Sure, audiences may be experiencing desensitisation toward politics, opinions and ideologies. This does not mean that this disinterest will last forever. Sooner or later the quest for information will return.
In the next phase of media’s development, several questions will arise: will Egyptian media continue to be dependent on the powers that be? And more importantly what will the role of media be in the future of this country?
The next few months will be crucial as Egypt becomes more stable and readies itself for parliamentary elections- a chance for more democratic conditions to exist. This may be the best time to establish the much-deliberated ‘Charter of Honour for Media Practitioners’ or any similar code of ethics or several codes of ethics. This can be a time to find solutions rather than complain, time to address the reasons of why media standards have been low. This may be the time for state media to reform and it may be the best time for new owners to consider investing in their country’s media.
This is when media professionals can move to make the Egyptian media environment more useful for the society of tomorrow.
The writer is Associate Professor and Chair,
Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, AUC