We completely agree: Egyptian media in the era of President el-Sisi

By Mohamed Elmeshad on April 27, 2015 11:01 AM ET

Journalists protest the imprisonment in Egypt of Al-Jazeera staffers Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed outside the network's offices in Sanaa, Yemen, on June 25, 2014. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

If there were any doubt about who the presidential frontrunner would be in Egypt's May 2014 elections, the Egyptian media made sure to strongly suggest that then-Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was the only choice.

No matter how prominent the other presidential candidates were, each was unceremoniously sidelined, discounted, or even ridiculed, and most soon withdrew their names from contention.

Owing to the media's unwavering support for el-Sisi, the scene was set for a return to a state-aligned media monolith. All of the media figures, owners, and journalists who had flourished under ousted President Hosni Mubarak now found a new champion. Today, many popular television hosts who came to prominence after or as a result of the January 25 Revolution, or are considered less-than-enthusiastic supporters of el-Sisi, are being purged from the airwaves--most through acquiescent internal media organizational actions.

There have been instances of direct government intervention or censorship, such as the shutdown of opposition Islamist channels, but most censorship now comes from a zealous state-aligned media establishment. The result is that the media in Egypt today is essentially the voice of the military state.

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The trend was plainly evident in the run-up to the elections. In interviews by major private television stations with el-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahi (who alone endured as an opposing candidate), the difference in treatment was stark. El-Sisi gave pre-taped roundtable interviews to reverential interviewers at special locations, as if dispensing wisdom to studious deputies. Sabahi, who sees himself as the torch-bearer for Nasserism, only gave live in-studio interviews, with typically probing and combative hosts taking him to task over his presidential program and recent statements. Sabahi was treated as an opposition candidate, el-Sisi as a president.

When he was defense minister, among the first orders that el-Sisi gave after President Mohamed Morsi was deposed on July 3, 2013, was shutting down two newspapers and all nine privately owned pro-Morsi television stations airing out of Egypt. Many of the employees and owners were subsequently jailed.

It was clear that the relationship between the regime and the media was going to be crucial during el-Sisi's early days in power. On May 3, 2014, during one of his taped roundtable discussions (this one in his residence), he met with a who's-who of Egyptian media and lectured them on the importance of media in "unifying the nation." Within four months of his election, he held three more such meetings with representatives from the media and journalism institutions. None challenged him, though a few did propose progressive steps that could be taken for media freedom.

The state's obvious preoccupation with the role of the media has reaped dividends; the popular media has shifted its coverage to support the government, and this has inevitably resulted in biased reporting and internal censorship. Although many journalists face real danger covering protests or Muslim Brotherhood-related activities, their ability to perform even routine duties has been constrained by a media hierarchy that takes its cues from the regime.

As Mohammed Helmy, head of the reports unit at CBC Extra TV in Cairo, put it, "It is clear that the media agreed with the president that 'there is a war on terror and the media must play its part.' However, these are very loose terms and unfortunately many media organizations are translating them to mean that anyone who has any opinion contrary to that of the state's must be restricted [from appearing or publishing]." Helmy spoke to me while on a two-month leave in Germany.

On October 25, 2014, the CEO of Al Nahar TV walked into the dressing room of prominent Egyptian talk show host Mahmoud Saad moments before the airing of his live nightly television show to let him know that he would not be presenting that night. Saad, an amiable and relatively balanced media personality, dutifully obliged, leaving the station and taking his production team with him, according to some of the show's journalists, who declined to be identified by name for this report. The night before, Saad had hosted a guest who critically psychoanalyzed el-Sisi, and who, among other things, spoke about the psychological effects of popular support for the military. The guest, Manal Omar, also mentioned a 1967 Egyptian military defeat by Israel that led to a seven-year occupation of Sinai. The day that show aired, units of the Egyptian military were under attack in Sinai.

Al Nahar, a private station, never revealed why Saad was taken off the air, but its management issued a public statement saying "substantial changes" would be made to its political programs. "The channel will prohibit the appearance of a number of guests who promote ideas that weaken the morale of the Egyptian army," the statement noted.

A few days later, Al Nahar issued another statement saying that Saad would resume his position and that he was in agreement with the channel that they must work together on "unifying the ranks" and working toward "prioritizing ... the national interest." On October 29, 2014, Saad took back the reins from his temporary replacement, Khaled Salah, a vociferous supporter of the current regime and editor-in-chief of a newspaper with similar inclinations. Saad's only comment on his hiatus: "I honestly don't know why I was not on air these past few days."

The Al Nahar episode was not big news outside Egypt, but it illustrates the current state of the media in country. Though journalists in the field often find themselves in physical danger or involved in legal entanglements having to do with political unrest, public and private editorial boards have been bent on purging or at least quieting influential figures whose views run counter to the regime's narrative, which requires obsessive nationalism and a unified political voice, ostensibly to fight terrorism.

Even talk show hosts who nominally supported el-Sisi but had a tendency to be honestly critical have lost their places on the air or in the newspapers, despite being prominent and widely watched.

"After June 30, the general trend and atmosphere in Egyptian media has been one of widespread support for the regime, paralleled with a hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood," said Mohamed Nasser, an executive producer and editor at major private television stations such as Al Nahar and Al-Modon.

News broadcasters and talk show hosts such as Yosri Fouda (ONtv) and Deena Abdelrahman (CBC TV) were frozen out of the private television stations where they dominated the airwaves in the nightly and daily primetime slots, respectively. In Fouda's case, multiple high-ranking insiders at OnTV who requested anonymity for this report because of the potential for repercussions said that one year before his contract was to end he was told he would no longer have his nightly show but could stay on with a weekly show--an offer he was sure to refuse, in light of his popularity and the show's ratings.

Abdelrahman, who had been presenting a nightly talk show highlighting social issues, was released in March 2014, ostensibly because of what her employers described as her "decreasing stock in the media," according to a statement reported by the news outlet Youm7 online.

CBC is the same network that pulled Bassem Youssef (known as Egypt's Jon Stewart) off the air in November 2013, when his satirical anti-establishment show was reaching dizzying commercial heights as the most-viewed program in the Arab world. Youssef's cancellation coincided with his taking jabs at the president-to-be; he had dedicated a segment to mocking the way in which Egyptian media outlets were dropping unsubtle hints regarding el-Sisi's presidential credentials. Abdelrahman had used time on her show to criticize her employer's treatment of Youssef, a cardiac surgeon turned political satirist.

Others, such as talk show hosts Reem Maged and Alaa el-Aswany, simply chose to retreat from the field, both after offering very public reasons. Maged wrote a letter to her employer (also ONtv) that was made public, stating that she was invoking the "conscience clause" and stepping down from her nightly talk show because her principles regarding her job "do not coincide those of my employer."

The common factor for all of the departing media figures was that they were among the pre-eminent media voices of the January 25 Revolution, which is when they became household names. They were all liberals who opposed Morsi, whose media supporters had already been taken off the air. They were not averse to hosting guests or entertaining topics spawned by the June 30 demonstrations that could be seen as running averse to the regime.

Writers such as Belal Fadl, Seif Abdelfattah, and others who were acclaimed columnists with broad, established audiences also found themselves frozen out of publications for which they had written extensively. Fadl's latest television drama, "Alexandria's People," was pulled from being aired in all local private and public broadcasting. According to a 2014 report by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) titled "Freedom of Expression After the First 100 Days of el-Sisi's Rule," one of the reasons cited by station heads for pulling Fadl's show was that "it would be improper to air a television drama that criticizes the performance of police" before the 25 January revolution.

Gamal Eid, director of ANHRI, observed, "There is a return to the Mubarak-era system of unofficially blacklisted public figures who are persona non grata on television stations." According to Eid, privately owned media with allegiances to the regime decide among themselves to bar certain guests from appearing as pundits.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb announced in April 2014 that there would be no government censorship, that "no free pen would be chopped down." Yet the reality is that the government has on occasion directly intervened, and it has made clear the ramifications of media opposition to its stated goals. Ahmed Ragab, formerly an executive producer of Yosri Fouda's show "Akher Kalam" and a managing editor of one of Egypt's largest independent newspapers, Al-Masry Al-Youm, observed that "pens are chopped down, columns discontinued, and media is definitely silenced."

However, Ragab believes that much of the censorship is the product of the general atmosphere, that there is no systematic censorship or official government-mandated bias. Instead, Ragab contends, the lack of objective media stems from a combination of social hysteria regarding terrorism and the threat of political instability and commercial interests that drive media outlets to toe the government line. "The market for neutral level-headed news shows, like Fouda's, is decreasing while the market for sensationalist nationalism is on the rise," Ragab said.

"Right after the 25 January Revolution, the power was in the streets, so the media had to follow suit," said Khaled el-Balshy. "Now the businessmen who run the media are back with the state and doing their work for them." El-Balshy, who has been editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Al-Badil since 2008, said he believes the state has been "abusive" to journalism by dealing harshly with offending reporters through limits on information access and various legal procedures.

A TV news presenter working for a private network who spoke on condition of anonymity said that since the run-up to the June 30 protests he has received direct orders from his superiors not to sanction the appearance of any Muslim Brotherhood members on any of their programming. The presenter claimed that he was told that this was a national duty, despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood was still in power and had not yet been declared a terrorist organization, as it is now.

Many media insiders support Ragab's contention that news coverage by private stations is not directly dictated by the regime--not officially, at least. "Most media executives would agree, the government has not directly released any gag orders against any of these personalities," Nasser, who is also Cairo bureau chief of the Lebanese TV station Al-Mayadeen, observed.

One incident that appears to contradict that view involved Aida Seoudy, who hosts a variety show on Radio Hits, a publicly owned radio station. Seoudy took to her program on November 29, 2014, to voice her frustration that the legal case against former President Hosni Mubarak had been thrown out on procedural grounds, leaving him free to go. She did not criticize the court's ruling itself, which would have been illegal and could carry a jail sentence and serve as grounds for her suspension from work. Her annual contract, which she had been renewing regularly for more than five years, was due to expire on December 1, 2014, and on the day after her outburst, Seoudy said, she was told that her contract would not be renewed.

After making headlines, Seoudy said she received a phone call on December 2 from a policeman working in el-Sisi's office, informing her, "The president has ordered your [contract] renewed ... and sends his regards." A representative of the president's office called in to a talk show presented by Yousef el-Hosseiny to confirm that the president had ordered Seoudy back to work, el-Hosseiny noted in his on-air comments. Seoudy also recounted the conversation in a television interview with Mahmoud Saad the next day.

Observers were left to wonder whether the conflicting actions regarding Seoudy's contract signified a disconnect between decision-makers in the media and the presidency or other executive authorities. That is a topic that Seoudy, who is back on the air, has also raised.

Other editorial executives contend that the close relationship between major newspapers and TV stations with different state apparatuses means that state intervention in local news reporting sometimes comes in the form of informal telephone conversations. Ragab subscribes to this theory as well: "The majority of media owners find it in their best interest to be in the state's good graces [such] that they would not refuse direct requests [such as] avoiding certain subjects or figures. I feel that, on the contrary, they go overboard in trying to prove their loyalty."

A day after the incident with Mahmoud Saad, while the country was consumed with news of terrorist attacks in Sinai, the editors-in-chief of all of the major newspapers met and issued a statement to collectively declare that they would "support all of the measures taken by the government in combating terrorism and protecting the national security of the country." The meeting followed another incident on "Dream TV" in which host Wael el-Ibrashy's show was cut short while he was criticizing the Ministry of Education. In Egypt, most prominent newspaper editors also run TV news talk shows, and many TV journalists and producers are also print journalists.

The phrase "prioritizing the national interest," a recurring theme among government and media officials, is obviously open to interpretation and largely within the government's purview. Another producer on a private television show, who requested anonymity for the same reason cited by others--fear of retribution--said that he had received direct orders from his superiors to refrain from covering any Muslim Brotherhood protests or gatherings. "Just watch TV on most Fridays--you will see no coverage of protests on television, but Facebook will be filled with photos from them," the producer said.

Gamal Eid said that he has heard similar reports from other sources, that their stations had ordered them to avoid covering the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those who do cover Muslim Brotherhood protests face clear perils. Some have been killed and wounded during violent encounters and, at the very least, have found little support for their reporting. "I have reporters who were slapped around by police for covering an MB protest, and others attacked by the MB supporters, for thinking they were there to misrepresent them," Helmy, of CBC Extra TV, said.

For many Egyptian journalists, supporting the government's positions is a given and is not even seen as bias. British journalist Imogen Lambert recalled a job interview with a news network's online English portal in which she was unabashedly told that the network supported the government. "The editor that was interviewing me had no qualms saying, 'Here we support the government, we support the president, and we support the military, and we do not like the Muslim Brotherhood,'" Lambert said.

The editor, Lambert recalled, also said that if she were to report a foreign story she should remember that the network was averse to Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. She would, however, be free to cover the Scottish referendum. "See, this is something that your BBC would not let you cover freely. That's how we are with the Brotherhood," the editor added, according to Lambert, who quit the job after two weeks.

Some view such positioning as a return to operating under similar restrictions imposed during the Mubarak era. But others, including Ragab, are more pessimistic. "For journalism, these days are the worst we've seen recently," Ragab said. "During the time of Mubarak we had boundaries, but we covered many more topics openly. These days I don't hear much talk about journalistic integrity as much as I [do] hysteria regarding this concept of national priorities."

From the early days of the new Egyptian Republic, each president has had a minister of information who would regulate and manage the entire media establishment in Egypt, in direct coordination with the regime in power. That position has been canceled; in its stead, a National Media Council is being created under a directive in Article 211 of the 2104 Egyptian Constitution. Among other things, the article states that the council is responsible for guaranteeing and protecting the freedom of press and media, safeguarding its independence, neutrality, plurality and diversity, and preventing monopolistic practices."

On the surface, the council appears to be an Egyptian version of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States but with broader jurisdiction. The concern, said CBC Extra's Helmy, is over how far that jurisdiction will extend to ensure compliance with "national goals." The Egyptian Radio and Television Union, a government body, is authorized to compile a list of 50 people to choose the council's 25 members, excepting the two members whom the president selects. The president also has the authority to choose the council's chair.

In light of the current close alignment of the media and the state, many observers are circumspect about the chances that the council will be able to effect meaningful change. But el-Balshy, who is also a board member of the Press Syndicate, said that limiting direct state regulation of the media and limiting media monopolies could help reduce state control.

"We are either looking at an oppressive system in Egypt between private businesses and the state that will only get more oppressive in the future or we have a glimmer of hope in new progressive legislation that, if applied, could lead to a truly free press," el-Balshy said.

El-Balshy's caveat, "if applied," is a crucial question concerning the future of the media in Egypt.

Mohamed Elmeshad is a freelance journalist who has worked for Egypt Independent, reporting primarily on social issues, economics and the Egyptian Revolution (2011). He is pursuing a Ph.D. at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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