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EGYPT: State Media has New Bosses, Old Habits

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Aug 7 2011 (IPS) - Six months since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the state media organs that once glorified the dictator’s policies and glossed over his failures have new leaders. Yet the mindset of decades of authoritarian rule remains intact, say media experts.

“The state media is very set in its ways; all it knows how to do is to sing the praises of the guy on top,” says Rasha Abdulla, a professor of journalism and mass communications at the American University in Cairo. “And now that Mubarak is gone they are looking for the next closest thing, and to them it’s the (ruling) military council.”

Mubarak recognised the power of the media and invested in control of newspapers, television and radio. His regime used these channels to spoon-feed the masses a formulaic diet of pulp and propaganda, and to drown out dissenting voices in the country’s small but vibrant independent press.

Egypt’s revolution put state media to the test. With an event comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall unfolding on their doorstep, national media outlets accustomed to praising the regime faced three options: report, deny, or lie. Over the course of the 18-day uprising, they tried all three.

Shahira Amin, former deputy director and senior anchor of state-run Nile TV, says when the revolution kicked off on Jan. 25, her network – usually excluded from direct censorship as it broadcasts in English – received strict orders to avoid mention of the anti-regime demonstrations taking place within earshot of its downtown Cairo studio.

“We were only allowed to report on pro-Mubarak demonstrations,” she says.


As the uprising grew in size, the regime’s spin doctors concocted conspiracy theories aimed at turning public opinion against the protesters. The official line carried by state newspapers and television was that Israeli, Iranian and Hamas agents were inciting the unrest.

Amin says her own visits to Cairo’s Tahrir Square opened her eyes to the lies her network was spreading and left an indelible impression on her conscience.

“When I went to Tahrir Square, I saw that the protesters were families and it was a popular movement, with young and old, rich and poor,” she says.

Then on Feb. 2, pro-Mubarak thugs, including men on horses and camels armed with sticks and swords, charged throngs of unarmed protesters in Tahrir Square. International satellite channels broadcast iconic footage of the so-called “Battle of the Camel” to viewers worldwide. Egyptian terrestrial channels refused to air the clips.

“I was watching Al-Arabiya (satellite news channel) and saw the camel attack, but when they gave me the news to read that night there was no mention of the clashes,” Amin recalls. “The news editor told me he had clear instructions not to discuss them.”

For Amin, it was the final straw. The following day she quit her job and joined the protesters.

Her resignation was the first of many defections inside state media institutions as Mubarak’s regime ramped up editorial control during the brutal crackdown on protesters that left over 800 people dead and thousands injured.

Journalists who remained changed their tune only when it became clear that Mubarak would fall. Overnight the anti-regime protesters they had portrayed as “foreign agents” and “troublemakers” were rebranded as patriotic youth seeking long-overdue reforms.

“The revolution totally discredited state media and whatever little faith people had in it,” says Abdulla. “It will be an uphill battle for national media to regain its credibility and honestly, I don’t think it has even started.”

Following Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt’s military-run transitional government instituted a number of changes to state media, dissolving the information ministry that supervised its content and appointing new leadership for state newspapers, radio and television.

Ashraf El-Leithy, deputy editor of the official Middle East News Agency (MENA), says the measures have allowed state media outlets to adopt an independent editorial line.

“Before the revolution we could not write about certain issues, such as (possible presidential contender Mohamed) ElBaradei or the (once-banned) Muslim Brotherhood,” he says. “Now we’re free to choose our topics and how we want to cover them.”

But Amin, who returned to Nile TV on condition she has full control of her content, says the changes are mostly cosmetic. The new chief editors and station heads are veterans of the old regime’s propaganda machine, while the people they replaced have been kept on as consultants.

“It’s the same people, same editors, same mindset,” she says. “They just replaced Mubarak with the military.”

Media analysts say corruption and cronyism persist, along with Mubarak-era methods. Journalists, unused to going into the field to gather news, still prefer to wait for government press releases, or to cut and paste from other sources. Those who once unabashedly praised Mubarak now fawn over the country’s military rulers.

“The only significant change is that state TV is now hosting opposition activists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, (an ultra-conservative Islamic sect known for its intolerance),” says Amin. “But I feel this is more of a targeted message. Mubarak said ‘it’s either me or chaos’ – we’re seeing a lot of the chaos. This could be a way of scaring the public to abort the revolution.”

Disturbingly, say rights groups, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) reinstated the information ministry last month. It also warned that any reporting concerning the military or its leadership must receive prior approval from its morale affairs and intelligence directorates. Journalists and bloggers who failed to heed the warning have been harassed and arrested.

“In many ways (government oversight) is worse now than under Mubarak,” says Amin. “Before, they never checked our scripts. Now there is a lot of scrutiny. Everything has to go through army affairs.”

The external pressure has only slowed the pace of reform, asserts Abdulla, who underscores the challenge of bringing change to institutions that kept Mubarak in power for 30 years. Journalists need direction and training. But mostly, she argues, they need to recognise their role.

“This is not state media we’re talking about, it’s public media,” says Abdulla. “It’s paid for by the people’s money and is supposed to serve the people, not the regime.” [END/IPS/MM/IP/HD/PI/PF/RA/CM/SS/11]

 
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