Media rules of engagement

Hany Ghoraba
Saturday 21 Apr 2018

Media wars can be victorious through effective and smartly led campaigns that focus on the truth

Countries sometimes face foreign propaganda campaigns aiming at smearing their reputations through a hostile media or misleading reports about their stances.

Since June 2013 and possibly before, Egypt has been facing such a hostile foreign campaign in the form of an organised propaganda offensive fuelled mainly by Islamists and those Westerners who adopt their cause, ironically in the name of freedom.

Egypt’s justified war on terrorism has been repeatedly attacked and described as a “war against freedom”. The country’s efforts at battling ferocious terrorist attacks have been tainted intentionally in many Western media reports.

Yet in some instances, the Egyptian authorities seem to have neglected the basic rules of engagement in fending off such propaganda attacks against the country, resorting instead to security methods that may exacerbate the situation and work in favour of such campaigns.

All foreign reporters in Egypt should be aware that they are not practicing their jobs in a foreign colony of their home country, but in a sovereign country with its own laws and regulations that govern all activities for locals and foreigners alike, including journalism.

However, it is also up to the Egyptian state to uphold the law, while at the same time treading carefully regarding foreign journalists since some unprofessional reporters might provoke the authorities into reactions that will assist them in advancing their otherwise not very illustrious careers.

The Western press and associations such as the NGO Reporters without Borders are all too ready to take cases of expelled or imprisoned journalists at face value without asking too many questions as freedom of expression is deemed to be paramount.

The onus is always on countries seen as persecuting journalists to prove that they are not, and countries such as Turkey and North Korea have been spearheading the list of countries that are indeed mistreating journalists.

It would be unjust to see Egypt put in this company as a result of unfortunate reactions by the authorities.

There are internationally agreed protocols when handling the foreign press that must be followed in order to avoid unnecessary complications or even unintentionally justify smear campaigns against Egypt.

The case of the British reporter Bel Trew of the UK Times newspaper was mishandled, for example, even if this reporter seemingly lacked a properly professional attitude in her work.

The authorities charged her with working without a valid licence and filming without a permit earlier this year, and therefore they expelled her from the country.

However, her newspaper denied that she possessed any film-making equipment, and Trew herself said a day earlier that she had been informed that her permit had been approved and that she did not need to apply for a temporary one.

As a result, the charges against Trew appear to be flimsy, and they could harm the Egyptian authorities, especially as she had been living and working in the country for seven years.

Instead of insisting that the claims of the British reporter be investigated in depth, the authorities decided to take the easier, though ultimately perhaps more costly, route of expelling this reporter. This was a mistake, and it could have negative impacts on handling such cases in future.

A shoddy report by the Reuters news agency entitled “Food, Buses, and Cash: Getting out the Vote the Egyptian Way” also recently claimed that people were bribed with food, money and free transportation in order to persuade them to vote in the presidential elections held at the end of March.

The report included unverified claims not backed by evidence.

In a fine display of proper protocol, Diaa Rashwan, head of the State Information Service (SIS), contacted the news agency, rebutting the report in detail and clarifying the facts.

As a result, Reuters withdrew its report, saying that it had been “withdrawn because it didn’t meet Reuters standards”. This triumphant effort should set a standard for dealings with the international media.

A media war is won by winning hearts and minds, and it has its own rules of engagement that all countries should abide by.

Even with the best of intentions, and while fighting a justified war against a hostile foreign media that is targeting the country, it is important to remember that many readers will never bother to read the reasons why a given journalist was in fact expelled or imprisoned.

The truth can easily get lost in such cases, and the public abroad may support the journalist regardless of how twisted or shoddy their reports are.

The average reader is unlikely to find the time to look at multiple sources for news and may be likely to believe a story published in his or her preferred newspaper by its reporters.

Media wars are not won in a day, but they can be won by effective campaigns that are smartly carried out.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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