The need to reform the Egyptian media landscape

Mohamed Shuman
Friday 22 Jan 2016

The writer looks at ways to develop and reform the Egyptian media

Several years ago, I embraced an assumption that the incomplete Egyptian revolution had set media free, which helped in creating a vibrant public space that was characterised by diversity, and widespread and strong influence.

However, this freedom bore its contradiction and led to a state of media chaos, a decline in professional performance levels, an absence of codes of media ethics and, most importantly, the decline of real diversity in media and the predominance of one voice.

The irony is that this transformation happened without direct or rough interference from the state which regained its power after the election of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

There are many reasons that explain the state of chaos in the Egyptian media. The most important is the weakness of legislation and regulations, the non-existence of a syndicate for audio-visual media personnel, and the inactivation of the 2014 constitution articles concerning regulating media, freedom of opinion and expression and the right to obtain information.

In addition, there is a predominance of a few businessmen – some of them the presidents of political parties – over private satellite channels and newspapers which have become more widespread and influential than the state media.

It suffices to say that the media chaos raises criticism of President El-Sisi, the general public and the media personnel themselves who feel the dangers of the decline in the Egyptian media’s stature and its credibility.

The media discourse in its entirety, whether on the level of words or practices, does not convey news and information professionally to the public, or publish different ideas and opinions. Thus, most of what is published in newspapers or broadcast in the radio and television in Egypt does not fulfill the generally recognised real functions of media which are taught in mass communication faculties, practised in means of mass media and defined in the codes of practice, editorial policies and internal regulations.

For these reasons, media discourse is far from professional media rules and logical and rational thinking requirements, and threatens in some of its practices the Egyptian national interest. In short, it is imperative that the Egyptian media and its discourse be rationalised and developed through swift treatment of the following problems.

1) Localistion and turning inward

The prevalent media discourse is overwhelmingly Egyptian; it does not follow what’s happening in the world accurately and deeply.
It only conveys, and in a very selective way, some news and information about the most important current events in the Arab region and the world and discards the rest of the world’s news, including that of Africa and Latin America. It is rare that it publishes or broadcasts reports or opinions explaining what’s happening in the world.

Therefore, the public receives news about Syria, Yemen or Libya and sees the tragedies of their brothers in these countries, without understanding the meaning and significance of who is fighting whom and on behalf of whom.

The public cannot, with the change of standpoints and positions of the conflict’s parties, grasp what’s going on. Consequently, the public may abstain from following the news, or follow it as a reel of tragic incomprehensible images, fearing that they befall his homeland.

2) Speaking to the domestic audience and unable to speak to the outside world

Media discourse is focused on the domestic public; asserting every now and then the terrorism of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and the people’s rejection of them, the investment advantages in Egypt and the country's respect for law and human rights. 

However, it does not present these and other matters to public opinion outside the country.
Perhaps it does not have the media tools by which it can communicate with and influence public opinion circles. This is a disaster that needs swift solutions.

Perhaps it is unable to produce a convincing and coherent discourse. Perhaps what happened recently during the Russian airplane crash crisis clarifies what I mean. The media concentrated on producing and promoting a discourse self-directed inward. It attempted to persuade those believing in it, i.e. Egyptians, people and government, that our standpoint is sound, that Sharm El-Sheikh is safe and beautiful and it will be a pleasure to visit. This is true, but we wanted that to reach foreign public opinion, not Egyptians.

3) Predominance of opinion material over news and information

Opinion and comment predominate media discourse, especially what is broadcast in TV as news material. Much of what is broadcast as news include opinions and explicit and implicit standpoints.

This is due to the increase in politicisation of the Egyptian media and the deliberate blending of news and opinion, granting programme presenters unprecedented rights to comment on events and voice their viewpoints, criticising situations and sometimes criticising the people, as well as engaging in verbal altercations, exchanging accusations and swearing live on air.

4) Multiplicity of opinions without real diversity

All of this multiplicity of opinions revolve around one box of ideas and conceptions. It is not permissible to step outside this box in narrating the events of the revolution, the standpoint towards the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism, Egypt’s relations with Washington and other Western capitals, in addition to evaluating the state’s general performance.

If any TV programme guest, presenter or writer went out outside the circulated ideas and opinions, he will not be permitted to appear or write again. This has happened to permanent guests or programme presenters who disappeared suddenly and haven't returned.

The irony is that the government or the security bodies seem to be distant from the practice of prohibition or censorship, while the administrators of newspapers or the satellite channels, whether public or private, carry out the marginalisation or prohibition.

Sometimes the private media exaggerates the case of censorship, while also circulating desired opinions or what it presumes that the government desires to propagate.  

5) Prevalence of conspiracy theories in media coverage

Media discourse is dominated by foreign conspiracy persuasions and notions against Egypt, the Arabs and Muslims.

Those notions are produced and circulated on a large scale, to the extent that they constitute a significant part of public discussion.

Unfortunately, they are employed as a mechanism for justifying domestic problems and portraying the government, its bodies and sometimes the citizens, as helpless parties unable to resist or exert their free will to act.

6) Sensationalism and departure from reason and logic

Contest, cooking, sports and sensational programmes in all types and forms are widespread on an unprecedented scale, without regard for the media’s social and ethical responsibilities.

This is paralleled by the granting of lots of opportunities to those pretending to be culture pundits and security and military experts, who provide an incessant flood of incorrect information and superficial viewpoints revealing ignorance and narrow-mindedness.

Some presenters participate with those pretenders in launching mistaken general judgments that undermine public awareness, threaten national security and harm Egypt’s relations with brotherly Arab countries.

Maybe the most recent pitfall of those pretenders is condemning the Paris attacks and at the same time criticising the French security measures with a tone of schadenfreude.

7) Irresponsibility in praising or criticising

In general, Egyptian media discourse exaggerates in praise, extolling and highlighting the positive sides in the performance of the president or the government.

This extremism is met with another form of extremism in dispraise and criticism. Sometimes the same person or media platforms do both at intermittent intervals, or sometimes even in the same week, according to the development of events.

What's important to them is the widespread and increase in the viewing or circulation rate notwithstanding their credibility or their social and political responsibility; whether their praise and presenting of the positive sides will raise the audience’s ceiling of expectations and aspirations; or that the extremism in criticism spreads despair and disappointment among people.

Finally, I believe that the treatment requires more developed and efficient self-regulation of media personnel, the rehabilitation and continuous training of many media personnel according to international criteria.

However, my firm conviction is that the media personnel are the weakest link in the media package. Consequently, it is imperative to change media legislation, the media profession environment and the contract provisions with media owners.

Moreover, guaranteeing media personnel's freedom, non-interference of state bodies and ensuring media personnel's access to information must be enforced.

Hence, it is imperative to demand the swift application of the constitution's articles in order that the Egyptian media be transformed into a multiple media in the real sense; society's media, not that of the government or the businessmen.

A media in which all forms of manipulation and the predominance of advertisements disappear; a media that allows all citizens to practise their communication rights.

There are also legitimate concerns regarding passing laws interpreting the constitution's articles in an undemocratic way, contradicting the spirit of the constitution and reproducing an authoritarian media.

I think that these are justified concerns in the light of the Egyptian historical experience and the formation of the new parliament. Laws and regulations were issued in the Sadat and Mubarak eras that robbed the 1971 constitution of its democratic spirit and were applied in a mistaken way that could not be more distant from the constitution’s and the law’s spirit.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).

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