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Media undergoes a trial by fire in Egypt

Acute polarisation of society between Brotherhood and regime supporters has led many journalists and news organisations to consider themselves part of the ‘war effort’ rather than impartial reporters of fact

Gulf News

Immediately after Egypt’s January 25 uprising in 2011, things seemed to be going pretty well for anyone working in the media. A lot of the old restrictions imposed by government had disappeared, an atmosphere of free speech and open debate prevailed, and there was lots of money to be made, with investments pouring in from international, regional and local news organisations.

Fast forward to the present moment and you find a different scene. There is still considerable money in the market, but the bold optimistic atmosphere of two years ago looks like a distant memory.

In a recent report titled Blocking the Truth, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights documented “205 violations against media freedoms between … 28 June and 30 August 2013”. These ‘violations’ range from relatively minor incidents such as journalists being kicked out of an area where they are reporting, to the serious incidents of journalists getting killed.

The report documents six cases of death for journalists while on duty, in addition to two off-duty journalists. It lists dozens of physical assaults — beatings, shootings, harassment … you name it — against reporters, producers and cameramen, at least 40 cases of arrests and detentions, and 11 cases of raiding and/or closing offices of newspapers and TV stations.

According to the report, ‘violations’ against journalists were committed by Egyptian authorities, members of the opposition and by vigilante groups. While “the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters are responsible for the largest number of violations … qualitative analysis shows that the most serious and violent incidents were carried out by security forces and the military, especially regarding the killing of some Egyptian and foreign media workers”, states the report.

Brotherhood leaders usually respond to these accusations by insisting that they respect freedom of expression and do not condone any acts of violence against journalists. Egyptian authorities say they too respect media freedom and that they cannot be blamed for journalists getting harmed if they had put themselves in harm’s way.

Part of this is true of course. In the past three months, Egypt witnessed a level of violence unprecedented in many years. With hundreds of people killed and thousands more injured, it is not surprising that the number of casualties among journalists would rise accordingly.

Yet the war-like atmosphere has affected the media in ways other than the physical dangers faced by journalists. The acute polarisation of Egyptian society between those who support the Brotherhood and those who support the current regime, has led many journalists and news organisations to consider themselves part of the ‘war effort’ rather than impartial reporters of fact.

This was going on even before the events of June 30 which led to the removal of former president Mohammad Mursi. Throughout the past year, I used to amuse myself in the morning by reading the pro and anti-Brotherhood press simultaneously. It felt like reading about two different countries.

The two camps were not simply putting a spin on stories to suit them — something which is common in many newspapers around the world — but reporting (and sometimes inventing) different facts. This, in turn, probably led to more polarisation in society, as different readers (and viewers in the case of TV) found themselves living in parallel worlds.

After the removal of Mursi and the ensuing violence, the bias in Egyptian media (among both camps of the political divide) reached new heights. Pro-government TV channels — private as well as state-owned — almost never host guests from the Brotherhood camp. Indeed, even anti-Brotherhood commentators who hold critical views of the government’s handling of the conflict very rarely appear on the screens nowadays.

Amr Hamzawy, a liberal politician, is a good example. He used to be sort of a star guest on so many talk shows, sometimes appearing on more than one show on the same night. A fierce opponent of the Brotherhood, he has nonetheless objected to the security crackdown against the organisation. As a result, Hamzawy has appeared in less than a handful of shows over the past three months.

The bias of news organisations is making it difficult for some of their workers who want to do their job properly. A number of reporters and producers working for a famous pan-Arab broadcaster resigned in July and August in protest at what they said were pressures to compromise editorial integrity to provide coverage that was favourable for the Brotherhood.

On the other side of the political/media divide, a young TV presenter, who wishes to stay anonymous, told me about a similar experience that he had. He was interviewing a guest on his show who made some wild assertions about protesters in Raba Al Adawiya, where Brotherhood supporters were staging a sit-in at the time. The guest maintained that most of the protesters were not Egyptian, but rather Sudanese, Syrian, Palestinian and a few Israelis. Although the presenter is personally very much against the Brotherhood, he felt obliged to challenge the guest about how credible these claims were. When he finished the show, the channel’s director reprimanded him and informed him that he will be taken off air for a week. For the young presenter it was a lesson that he should stop acting like a real journalist.

 

Khaled Ezzelarab is BBC Arabic’s multilingual reporter in Cairo.

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