One year after the mass uprising that forced former President Hosni Mubarak to relinquish power, Egyptians are still waiting for comprehensive media reforms that would pave the way for democracy. The military authorities controlling the country in the transitional period have yet to loosen their tight grip on the media and purge Egyptian state media of corrupt employees.
The media scene is more vibrant and diverse than it was under Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, but even after the launch of new private TV channels and publications, and the debut appearances of opposition figures on the small screen, some media analysts claim the reforms are not deep enough to effect tangible change.
“Red lines remain that cannot be crossed. In the old days Mubarak was the red line. Today, it is the ruling military council or SCAF,” says journalist Khaled Dawoud who works for state-sponsored Al Ahram.
From the outset, the interim military government issued directives for any media coverage of the military to be sent to the Armed Forces Morale Affairs Department for review before broadcast or publication. Broadcasters and editors working for Egyptian state-owned and independent media continue to complain about heavy censorship of their work, and in recent months several have resigned in protest. Prominent talk show host Hafez Al Mirazi recently became the latest broadcaster to quit his job, after the owner of the independent Dream TV kept Al Mirazi from showing a video of Magdi el Gallad, editor in chief of El Masry el Youm, expressing support for Gamal Mubarak’s candidacy for president. Al Mirazi vowed not to return until the station, owned by prominent businessman Ahmed Bahgat, aired the episode in full. Bahgat, who had close ties to the Mubarak regime, later argued that showing the video would only inflame public sentiment and turn public opinion against Gallad.
Youssri Foda, another veteran journalist was off the air for several weeks in November after ONTV — owned by wealthy businessman Naguib Sawiris — censored his show after hosting author Alaa el Aswany, outspoken critic of the military regime. In August, presenter Dina Abdel Rahman made headlines when her Daily Morning Show on Dream TV was abruptly ended after challenging a retired air force major general who had boasted that “the Egyptian army was teaching the public KG1 Democracy”. Her bosses reprimanded her and replaced her with another presenter the next day. Abdel Rahman has since returned to the small screen, hosting an evening talk show on another private satellite channel where she has been pushing the boundaries of political discourse.
Meanwhile, state TV is struggling to regain credibility lost after biased coverage of last January’s uprising. During the eighteen days of mass protests, state TV waged an information war against pro-democracy activists, launching a smear campaign aimed at delegitimising the goals of the revolution. The airwaves were saturated with fabricated tales of treacherous protesters, including a televised confession from a young woman claiming that the CIA trained her to instigate the mass protests. State media changed its tone as soon as Mubarak fell, with editors back pedalling to take the side of revolutionaries. A front page banner in state-owned Al Ahram on 12 February (the day after the ousting of Mubarak) read: “The authoritarian regime has fallen!”
But soon the editors slid back to their old habits, repeating the mistakes of the past. During violent clashes at Maspero in October, Rasha Magdy, a state TV newscaster urged the public to defend the military against attacks by Coptic protesters. Magdy’s plea earned her the wrath of the public and she was accused of inciting violence against the protesters.
Calls for a public service broadcaster to replace the propaganda machine of the ruling authorities have so far been ignored and a former military general has been appointed as Minister of Information in the new cabinet — despite calls to dismantle the ministry altogether and replace it with a media council. Journalists opposing the appointment of the minister say the move can only mean tighter control of the media and more propaganda for the military authorities. “We had hoped that television in the post — revolutionary era would become the mouthpiece of the people not the regime,” lamented Salma Amer, a former reporter at state TV.
But the picture isn’t totally bleak. The courage shown by some journalists fighting for journalistic ethics, the proliferation of new voices in the media and breaking the barrier of fear are all encouraging signs that change is on the way. The media landscape is being transformed and the introduction of political satire in comedy shows like Bassem Youssef’s The Program would have been unthinkable just a year ago. Despite being on air for just a few months, Youssef is already a household name in Egypt and has developed a mass following for his unique brand of sarcastic humor. For him, the sky’s the limit and Youssef has mercilessly poked fun at practically everything and everyone including the military establishment.
“One of the fruits from the 25 January Revolution has been the new energy injected in Egyptian media,” says prominent journalist and correspondent Ayman Mohieldeen.
Mohieldeen’s optimism is shared by a few hopeful media analysts who believe that a new momentum has been started. And, they assure us, the trend is irreversible.