Faculty Analyze Media Coverage, Prospects of Free Press in Egypt

Media coverage of Egypt’s unfolding events has sparked controversy nationwide. Politicized, polarized and impartial; these were some of the terms that were used to describe how the media has been depicting Egypt’s tumultuous times. The allegations are not limited to national channels, but extend to encompass Western and international media outlets, both print and broadcast.

“At present, news media in Egypt are, by and large, one-sided and sensationalist,” said Mohamad Elmasry, assistant professor at AUC’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication and director of the graduate program. “There is little commitment to norms of detachment, fairness and balance, and many media seem to be serving as propagandists for the interim government and military.”

For Elmasry, the failure of local media outlets to take the leap past partisan divides comes as no surprise. “None of the coverage in Egypt is surprising,” said Elmasry. “Research has shown that many Egyptian journalists lack professionalism, do not strive for objectivity and consider themselves to be activists more than independent watchdogs. Also, business tycoons who own private outlets are sympathetic to the military and the Mubarak regime.”

Rasha Abdulla, associate professor of journalism and mass communications, maintains the same convictions. “Sometimes you can’t distinguish if these channels are reporting news or airing PR campaigns for the military,” she told The Daily News Egypt. “Even if the general audience accepts and welcomes this huge dosage of propaganda, these channels should seek some objectivity.” Others believe that even the best media coverage has its limitations. “Undoubtedly, violations have been committed by local media outlets,” said Hussein Amin, professor of journalism and mass communication. “However, the upside is that they glorified the June 30 Revolution and managed to bring people together. While some analysts were wary of the coverage of Cairo-based broadcasters, channels such as those of Alexandria and Suez Canal were successful in providing full and neutral coverage of events.” To mend the divide, Amin noted, local media outlets need to persistently emphasize and highlight commonalities in Egyptian society. “We share neighborhoods, history, culture and language,” said Amin. “At this time, people need to be constantly reminded that we are one. This can be accomplished through corporate-sponsored messages that serve to highlight these aspects and embed them further in society. It’s an important part of the reconciliation process.” While some of Egypt’s broadcast channels have been rebuked for their one-sided coverage, analysts have also lashed out on international media outlets, with allegations that they are following their own agenda. “Complaints by the pro-coup camp in Egypt –– which have now been extended to include attacks against The New York Times, BBC, CNN, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent and human rights groups –– are increasingly absurd,” noted Elmasry. “As best as I can tell, many pro-coup people have declared everyone who calls July 3 a military coup liars. It is as though every media outlet outside of Egypt has been ‘Brotherhoodized.’” On the opposite end of the spectrum are analysts who believe that Western media can only shed limited insight on what’s happening in Egypt. “They see a military uniform and immediately declare it a coup d’etat,” said Amin. Spurring heated debate is Al Jazeera’s coverage of the events. From shutdown court orders to broadcast interferences, the channel has been actively targeted by authorities, with claims that it seeks to fragment society and incite rebellion. “Initially, people opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood criticized Al Jazeera on the grounds that it supported the Brotherhood,” said Elmasry. “Consistently, Al Jazeera uses a debate format and offers people on all sides time to present their points of view. This, however, is taken as evidence of pro-Brotherhood bias since it also gives the Brotherhood an opportunity to voice their opinion. Undeniably, Al Jazeera has taken a critical view of the July 3 military coup, but this has more to do with the channel’s tendency to offer a voice to those whom the network considers oppressed.” Equally troubling, believes Abdulla, are double standards that seek to silence dissent and impose media controls. “I am personally against the closure of media outlets, even if they commit such violations,” said Abdulla in a Mada Masr article. “You fight words with words, not by closing down a channel and stifling freedom of expression. But if we assume for a moment that these violations call for closure, let’s then apply these standards to all television channels and not only to channels that have political stances we do not agree with.” For Amin, the coverage of transnational media channels, such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and France 24 is merely a reflection of their root beliefs and agendas. “Their coverage channels are playing a dangerous role,” said Amin. “Many Egyptians now believe that fighting the enemy involves killing a fellow Egyptian or Muslim.” In turbulent times, slanted media coverage can be a ticking time bomb. Article 179 of the new draft constitution, which establishes the National Council for Media as a regulatory authority and whose composition would be later set by law, aims to protect national interests and keep them on an even keel. “Regulating broadcasting is not a new concept to most of the world; however, a formal set of regulations is new to countries in the Arab world,” said Amin. “Arab countries have been using a broadcast code of ethics instead of the body of rules and regulations that should govern the industry in general. Article 179 seeks to make sure that Egyptian broadcasters will be held accountable for adhering to the conventional principles of decency, religious and cultural values, as well as the rule of law. Also, the council should set standards for broadcasters to address their audiences’ needs and necessities, and avoid content that promotes violence or hatred, provides support for terrorist activities, or endorses or promotes political viewpoints without providing balance and accuracy. The council will monitor the responsible exercise of freedom of expression rather than silencing opposing voices.” For Elmasry, the idea of a media regulatory authority is acceptable in principle, but needs to be maintained with a system of checks and balances. “In theory,” he said, “there is nothing wrong with having a body responsible for regulating the media market and monitoring media performance. For councils and agencies like this to work, however, there needs to be some semblance of democracy –– political inclusion, serious political competition and, importantly, accountability for elected officials. Without checks and balances and under the current post-coup circumstances, any such effort will likely only serve the efforts of the current power brokers to maintain a one-sided conversation and stifle dissent.” Across all media, in Egypt and elsewhere, the concept of complete neutrality is nonexistent, added Elmasry. “Journalism is an imperfect enterprise,” he said. “It’s not possible for journalists and news organizations to see everything or to see events from all vantage points. It is similarly impossible for news organizations to completely escape the pressures and constraints that exert themselves on news production processes. However, news organizations that are committed to notions of detachment and fairness tend to do a much better job than news organizations that attempt to peddle a single perspective. There are balance problems everywhere, including the West, but the situation is exacerbated in Egypt.” The concept of impartial media becomes virtually impossible to attain in light of emerging and increasingly competitive channels. “Unbiased media, which can be loosely defined as direct reporting of news and events without comments or opinions, is an ideal,” said Amin. “Some media organizations do a better job than others in approaching that ideal, but I think in today’s world and with the multichannel, commercial environment of networks competing for ratings, it is highly unlikely that one would find a completely unbiased news source. In addition, today’s media environment is becoming increasingly fragmented, and networks are competing for audience share in ways by moving away from the ideal of unbiased reporting.” As people grow more dependent on citizen journalism and electronic means, the future of the media looks promising. “Although there have been laws that restricted the freedom of the media, society, industry and the media in Egypt have, for a long time, asked for increased freedom,” said Amin. “Governments in general have lost the power, in the digital age, to fully control the flow of information. Today, we see more people depending on electronic media, and this pattern will weaken the dependency on traditional media as we know it. One of the biggest challenges for the media in Egypt will be to prove themselves worthy of people’s trust in the accuracy and professionalism of their reporting. We still have quite a way to go.”