The Complicity of Cairo’s Press
A new dawn was heralded following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, but has anything changed for Egypt’s fourth estate?
A few days before Christmas last year, and just after another wave of deadly rioting had erupted in Cairo following the first round of parliamentary elections, an Egyptian newspaper ran a front page splash that was as impressive as anything produced recently by a major Western publication. Behind a stark red, two-inch high headline shouting “Liars” was an enormous photo showing Egyptian military police assaulting a helpless girl.
The picture was taken during a clash in Downtown Cairo. One of the policemen was stamping on the young woman’s chest, while two of the others were tearing away her black abaya to reveal a turquoise blue bra—it would be a humiliating indignity anywhere in the world, but especially so in such a devoutly religious society as Egypt.
State influence of the Egyptian press is nothing new.As editions of the newspaper hit the stands in on the morning of 18 December, Egyptians near a vendor on Tahrir Square stood and stared slack-jawed at the damning front page photo. Was this really their venerated military who could assault a woman in such a way? The newspaper responsible for the front page was Al-Tahrir, a post-revolution publication established by veteran Egyptian editor Ibrahim Eissa—a dissident journalist who has written for numerous publications that have been closed down by government censors over the years. As well as grabbing attention, the power of the story lay in the challenge that was thrown down to Egypt’s most powerful institution: the military.
According to Sarah El-Sirgany, deputy editor at the English language newspaper Daily News Egypt, the military has “always been the number one red line” in Egypt. Prior to the revolution, any negative articles about the army were unthinkable. But all that changed after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, said Sirgany, when the Military Council came to power and journalists could not conceivably write about Egyptian politics without referencing the army. Even so, for Al-Tahrir to brand the military as liars on its front page was a bold move.
But as far as some journalists were concerned, it marked anything but a sea change in terms of what journalists could and could not talk about. Shahira Amin, a long time presenter on state channel Nile TV, said that when she tried to make a program about the girl with the blue bra, it was vetoed by her boss. “She said it was not the right time to talk about human rights,” said Amin, who resigned during last year’s revolution in protest at her station’s lackluster coverage of the events. She later rejoined, saying it was better to be a voice of protest inside the organization rather than outside.
Amin told The Majalla that the media in Egypt has “undergone a revolution of its own” since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. She cited individual examples like that of Yosri Fouda, a popular TV host who decided to suspend his own show back in October, after military censors ordered an episode off the air. Yet Amin conceded that much of the state-run media was still in thrall to the government, saying that the widely-read state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram—effectively Egypt’s newspaper of record—was a “mouthpiece of the regime.”
Al-Ahram became the butt of jokes when, following the toppling of Mubarak, it ran a front page headline declaring that the people had brought down the regime. The splash came after successive articles which sought to undermine the protest movement and link it to a nefarious foreign agenda. In February it seemed the newspaper was back to its old ways, claiming on its front page that “American funding aims to spread anarchy in Egypt.” The article was sourced using a quote from Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, Faiza Abul Naga, and came in the run up to the trial of 16 American NGO workers and dozens of others on charges of misusing foreign funds.
State influence of the Egyptian press is nothing new. Sarah El-Sirgany recalls the days during the regime of Hosni Mubarak, when Daily News Egypt could expect up to two calls a month from the censor’s office over offending articles. But according to journalist Lina Al-Wardani self-censorship is just as big a problem as direct government intervention, with reporters avoiding any potentially touchy subjects which could land them in the interrogation chamber. She added: “The state media and some of the privately-owned media have moved their loyalties from Hosni Mubarak to the Military Council. “If you look at the front pages, instead of ‘Hosni Mubarak said this or that’, now it is ‘Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi said this or that’.”
Al-Wardani works for Al-Ahram Online, the English language, web-only sister paper of Al-Ahram. The two publications operate under completely different editorial codes—a consequence of the liberties which the Egyptian government grants to online English-language news operations. It is a policy rooted in the cosy knowledge that the vast majority of Egyptians will not be able to read English language news. Even so, the print editions of English language newspapers still remain tightly monitored—a quirk which results from the government’s control over the main printing presses, as well as what Sirgany calls “old-fashioned thinking.”
Some believe that since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year, Egypt’s press has benefited greatly. Professor Sami Tayie, from the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University, said that if anything reporters now have too much freedom. “I think sometimes editors now just publish rumors,” he said. “They print stories which only serve the agendas of their newspapers and are working according to private interests.”
Yet according to El-Sirgany, any notion of greater press freedoms in the wake of Egypt’s uprising is just an illusion. Journalists, she said, are locked in an “Orwellian” contract with their new military overlords, where they are allowed to “say a few things, but only if it doesn’t cross any red lines.” She added: “In my opinion, we Egyptian journalists failed miserably after the revolution. We had a window of opportunity and we could have created a new reality in terms of press freedom and redefined what we can and can’t talk about.
“You can sense things are moving, with the election coverage and the direction of the opinions which were allowed. But if you compare that to the space given to the opinion promoted by the state, you find these daring voices are in the minority.”