Egyptian media heading down dangerous path

Naila Hamdy , Wednesday 6 Nov 2013

After decades of restrictions, post-January 25 Revolution media in Egypt fought to remove constraints imposed on it; but after 30 June, it is heading down a road that can lead to less freedoms

Less than three years ago political satirist Bassem Youssef received much attention and created much controversy and debate when he introduced a new genre – the satirical news programme – to Egyptian and regional audiences. 

Youssef's programme brought hope for higher levels of freedom of speech and expression to a public that was thirsty for media reform after decades of restrictions designed to constrain media professionals whenever they attempted to expose corrupt and dictatorial rule.

During the height of the show's popularity, Youssef directly mocked the now ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi with the intention of exposing his incompetence, exposing the inability of his government to run the country, exposing the continuous and reemergence of new forms of corruption and to generally hold power to account.  The show became no laughing matter as polls and studies have shown that it played a significant role in swaying public opinion against the previous regime.

Bassem Youssef’s show may be a satirical show, but it represents the ongoing changes that have accompanied political and societal developments in a post-revolution transitional environment. Political upheavals and media transformations are inextricably linked.

After all, the media in Egypt jumped through hundreds of hoops but has also consistently fought to remove the shackles, since the first glimmer of hope for higher freedoms showed during the 18-day revolution.  Very quickly, realising that there was a chance for change, Egypt’s private satellite stations, and privately owned newspapers, reported on local events in an unprecedented manner. The popular talk shows showed muscle and tackled political events as they unfolded.

Soon after, the once highly controlled state media, also tried to join the wave of improved media coverage and analysis.  In addition, new communication modes such as social networks and citizen journalism flourished as a reaction to the novel openness.

The period following the revolution brought an unprecedented number of  new television stations, newspapers, talk shows, current affairs programmes, political satire shows, news websites, and local media to a once centralised media ecology.

By and large, Egyptian media has been contributing to the transition process positively through their diverse presentation of opinions and values, as well as exhibiting an astonishing eagerness to break previous taboos and deal with a new set of issues with more candidness than ever before. 

In addition, Egyptian media professionals regardless of ownership types have fought for media reforms, not just as individuals but through the formation of coalitions and associations with the specific aim of rebuilding Egyptian media for a democratic future, emphasising the importance of its watchdog function and its role as agents of social change. 

This is not to say that it has been a smooth road. Despite diversity and vibrancy Egypt media has also been partisan and often accused of being sensational and a contributor to the polarisation between an Egypt divided into two sides: liberal and Islamist. In addition, because the fight for an institutionalised press freedom has not yet been won, media professionals continue to be vulnerable to intimidation, and both direct and indirect pressure exerted on state and private media from various authorities.

But that was then. Egyptian media is now heading down a dangerous path that can potentially lead to less press freedom than witnessed in the past.

Following mass protests against the Islamist rulers in the summer of 2013, Egypt’s media began its descent down the spiral of silence. As the country became gripped by pro-military fervour and nationalistic sentiments, alternate voices are barely audible. There are no more Yosri Fodas or Reem Mageds – icons of press freedom – on the air.

As of the time of writing, private Egyptian TV station CBC has stopped the airing of the latest Bassem Youssef programme after it was criticised by some viewers. Youssef had offended many for mocking popular support for Egypt’s military leader and the station wanted to distance itself from the controversy.  A far cry from the days when the very same management defended the content of his show.

Unlike previous times, when censorship came directly from state authorities, it appears that this time it came as a response to societal pressure.  There is a consensus that Youssef’s show is injurious to the national fabric and stability of Egypt.  It is not that there have not been any crackdowns on journalists and other media professionals but I do not believe that this is the reason for the timid coverage of Egyptian political events since the 30 June military-supported popular protests. It is the total personal immersion and engagement with the changes, and the fear of societal rejection that has held back many from their initial enthusiasm for a better media performance.

Egypt’s real media foe right now, is itself. If media intends to play an important role in a new democratic Egypt, then it needs to find a more objective voice, improve its professionalism and step aside from direct engagement in politics and focus on radical development of their profession. Egypt’s media also needs to fight for institutionalising media freedom in the new constitution, the legal system, within the media itself and beyond momentary sentiment.  

The writer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo 


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