CAIRO — Thousands of Egyptians descended on Egypt’s state-controlled television and radio headquarters a few days after the first anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution, chanting for the end to military rule, the departure of field marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the end to the lies and propaganda from the “official” news source.
“This building is the head of the snake,” said Mohammed, a 23-year-old protester who was camping outside in late January.
Known as Maspero, the state-controlled press building is a semicircular fortress with a rectangular tower emerging from the center. From the Nile it looks like an architectural sombrero. Since the revolution, however, tall spirals of barbed wire and gray, metal barriers surround the exterior, guarded by soldiers in combat gear. In the first-floor office where foreign journalists get accredited, a young soldier in camouflage stands behind a machine gun mounted on the balcony, pointing toward the street.
In October, another protest took place at Maspero, involving Christian and Muslim Egyptians who demanded investigations into an attack on a church in southern Egypt. As the masses converged on Maspero, the soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators and ran down several with vehicles; 27 died and more than 300 were injured.
From inside the building, news anchor Rasha Magdy reported that armed Christians had attacked soldiers, killing three. She then called on “honorable citizens” to come to Maspero and defend the army. Activists later reported that civilian posses roughed up protesters.
Viewers at home had no idea what was happening because state TV did not show footage. Journalists inside Maspero were not allowed to film anything through the windows they all were plastered against as spectators. In addition, according to Human Rights Watch, soldiers raided and stopped live broadcasts at two private television stations, Al-Hurra and 25TV, whose offices are near Maspero.
Other media and personal videos later uploaded to YouTube told the real story.
Similar manipulations have been commonplace throughout Egypt’s recent history, from the announcement that Egypt had won the 1967 war with Israel to the tranquil footage of the Nile road in late January 2011 when a few blocks away hundreds of thousands of people packed Tahrir Square calling for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Anchors also announced that armed foreigners were inciting violence, effectively putting a bounty on foreign journalists. Dozens were attacked by groups of civilians and security forces.
New face, same story
Since the revolution, the Egyptian media has made some progress toward a more independent environment, but many of the same obstacles from the Mubarak regime are still in place under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is supposed to oversee the transition to a democratic government by this summer. Some Egyptian journalists argue that the press has simply replaced Mubarak with Tantawi.
On Jan. 25, Reporters Without Borders published its 2011-12 Press Freedom Index, dropping Egypt 39 places to 166th. Harassment and arrests of local and foreign journalists under Mubarak and then under the SCAF, and recent military court convictions of bloggers, caused the fall. Conversely, Tunisia, whose revolution started the domino effect in the region, rose 30 spots to 134th after journalist harassment and Internet censorship ended.
Among the positive steps in Egypt, though, is an explosion of new newspapers and television stations.
New dailies published by the recently created political groups have emerged, adding to the total of privately owned papers including Al-Shorouk and Al-Dostour. Television, the main vehicle of information in Egypt, has grown even more than print. About 16 new channels have obtained broadcasting licenses, and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Bahrain-based Orbit are now broadcasting from Cairo. Under Mubarak, the paperwork, background checks and high start-up capital for joining the official NileSat network was enough to keep outsiders away.
Several Egyptian journalists interviewed said that ON TV, owned by telecom and construction mogul Naguib Sawiris, who recently founded the secular Free Egyptians Party, is the most objective station in Egypt. Sawiris and the new TV moguls, however, have not escaped criticism that they made their fortunes through close ties to the former regime.
Liberal political party Al-Wafd set up the Al-Masry channel, and journalist Ibrahim Issa started Al-Tahrir Channel in a talk-show format for the young people who participated in the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood, which won about 40 percent of the seats in parliament in recent elections, launched Egypt 25.
As a result, not only have media options increased, but the press is now freer than ever to talk to just about anyone. Before the revolution, opposition groups and especially the Muslim Brotherhood were off-limits. Now they control their own media. That said, while the private media are able to criticize the SCAF, the television stations and newspapers under the state-controlled apparatus cannot cross that line.
Egyptians use the expression kalam garayed, “newspaper-talk,” to deride the decades of having propaganda disguised as news.
“For a long time we only had state-run media, and even with the private media that started around 15 years ago, the government tried to control it,” said Yasser Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian columnist and media consultant for companies such as the BBC and Unesco. “So after 60 years of this, many Egyptians still believe that newspapers only publish propaganda.”
Abdel Aziz adds that this reputation is unfair now, given the independence many Egyptian newspapers enjoy. As we spoke, he pointed out an article in the newspaper he was reading that criticized the SCAF. For him, the main problem the Egyptian media faces is removing the government from media oversight.
“There is still no law protecting free speech,” he said. “The person or people in charge may change so we need to get rid of the system that allows that person to control the media. Before, it was Mubarak, now the army, and tomorrow it could be the Muslim Brotherhood. So we need to free the media by establishing a national council, something like Ofcom in Britain, the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel in France or the FCC in the U.S.”
Talks are under way to create such a body, but they are still far from taking shape, according to Salama Ahmed Salama, who in 2008 helped found the private Al-Shorouk newspaper and who is hailed as one of Egypt’s leading independent journalists.
“There is now a big discussion going on about how to liberate those newspapers from state control,” he said in his office near the western bank of the Nile. “But it is complicated because the papers have heavy debts with the banks with guarantees from the government. And they cannot repay them.”
Salama worked for state-run papers Al-Akhbar and Al-Ahram, but he took a sabbatical in the 1970s to study journalism at Macalester College in Minnesota. He then took a training course at the Christian Science Monitor in Boston for six months. At the time it was an eye-opening experience for someone used to publishing only government-friendly stories, but there are still hangovers from the regime in the newsrooms.
“The spirit of the profession needs to be corrected,” he said. “Journalists need to be trained in a free-thinking way, reporting news that is verified before it’s published.”
There is a clear hunger for independent news in Egypt. During the revolution, Salama said, all the newspapers’ circulations shot up, and Al-Shorouk’s doubled to about 150,000. Asked why, he said because the paper aimed to publish everything that happened, to not support any group and to confirm all the facts.
“But, of course, television is another story,” he said. “It was and still is a governmental institution.”
Only fools and horses
For those working within the Nile TV machine, the revolution and Mubarak’s resignation posed a bizarre moment when no one knew what to do because everything had been so programmed from above.
According to Dalia Hassan, a video journalist/camerawoman for Nile TV’s French channel, before the revolution, the bosses would make sure nothing crossed the line with the government or made Egypt look bad.
“One time,” she said, “I did a report on how Egypt was hosting an international equestrian tournament, but not participating. It turned out the Egyptian team didn’t want to pay for experts to sign off on the horses as part of the tournament rules. The editors killed the story because it reflected badly on Egypt.”
Since the revolution, the rules have not changed. When protesters congregate outside Maspero, she said, the army seals the building and blocks the windows. Hassan happened to be outside during one protest, so she called her editor and suggested doing a live call-in to the anchor.
“I would have said that the protesters wanted the SCAF to hand over power,” she said. “I had to tell them this beforehand because if I had said that without checking first, I would have had problems. When they called back, they said they didn’t want a call-in. There was no mention of 2,000 protesters at Maspero that day on Nile TV.
“Television always has to follow a big boss,” she added. “Mubarak isn’t here, but now (field marshal) Tantawi and the SCAF are the big bosses. They need an idol to worship.”
This is why recent protests have been staged at Maspero. Other Nile TV employees said that even when they were allowed to cover protests in Tahrir, the demonstrators viewed them as the enemy and would try to break their equipment or evict them from the square.
In October, well-respected journalist Yosri Fouda canceled his ON TV talk show in protest over interference from the SCAF. He wrote on Facebook: “It is no secret that the pre-revolution mentality is still imposed on us, as it was before, and maybe worse now. This is not why people gave their lives, their eyes and their body parts. For the freedom of this country and the dignity of living, every honest man needs to take a stand. This is my form of self-censorship. I have the choice between saying the truth or nothing at all.”
Three weeks later, Fouda resumed his show with the guests he was planning on interviewing before the row.
However, governmental manipulation appears mostly confined to the Arabic-language media. Little interest is paid to foreign journalists or Egyptian press in other languages. Some of the most objective reporting comes from the English, online versions of private paper Al-Masry Al-Youm and the state-controlled Al-Ahram. Hassan said that because her channel transmits in French, and few people in the government speak French, they largely leave the channel alone.
For the foreign press, the situation has remained more or less unchanged in that they are free to write what they like, although like under Mubarak, authorities are more concerned with Egypt’s image abroad than with political topics. Control over the latter is reserved for the Arabic-language media.
Nevertheless, a large portion of Egyptians who are tired of the protests and want life to return to normal consider foreign journalists as revolutionary supporters. This, said Nina Hubinet, correspondent for French newspaper La Croix, makes reporting on the street more difficult and can create some tense situations. Additionally, the SCAF appears to be paying more attention to the foreign media than Mubarak ever did.
“I’ve been in Cairo for three years, and a few weeks ago, for the first time, the press center called me because of an article written in my newspaper about Egypt,” Hubinet said. “It was by another journalist, and they wanted to know who wrote it, even though the byline was on the website. They never called back, so I think the purpose was to let me know that they were reading my paper.”
Mike Elkin is a freelance journalist based in Madrid. He has written about the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions for Newsweek, Wired.com and Archaeology magazine. He previously wrote for Quill in February 2011 about press freedoms in Egypt and Tunisia.