Egypt media see changes in post-revolution atmosphere

After January 25 revolution, journalists face less fear from above, but objectivity now threatened by the Egyptian street.

July 25, 2011 22:47
Egyptian shop owners read newspapers in Cairo.

egypt newspaper_311 reuters. (photo credit: Peter Andrews / Reuters)

The summer sun bears down heavily on Cairo’s Tahrir square, its bare asphalt emptied of thousands of protesters who have sought refugee in the shade of their tents.

They have been protesting in Cairo’s central square, the womb of the popular uprising that brought down President Husni Mubarak, since opening a sit-in on July 8 to demand quicker democratic reforms and putting former government officials on trial for killing protesters during the January 25 revolution.

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The difference between then and now is evident by the dozens of cameras perched on their tripods and shoulders, aimed at passersby and individuals giving statements nearly around the clock. The media in Egypt have changed. They no longer fearing the government’s heavy hand, or the military’s long reach that once interrupted interviews if activists spouted anti-military sentiments.

And yet, with the new freedoms come new challenges that reporters are learning to deal with on a daily basis. The revolution for many Egyptian journalists also flipped their world upside down as the self-censorship, rigid editorial lines of before disappear, often at the expense of neutral objectivity as they too become caught up in the post-revolution Egypt.

“We all went through a lot, so when the protesters tell us thugs attack them, that is what we report, because we went through the violence as well,” says Mohamed Abdel-Salam, a journalist at al-Dustor.

Abdel-Salam recalls that during the winter uprising, police nabbed him as he left Tahrir Square and interned him in a holding facility somewhere in Cairo. For the next 24 hours he listened to the sounds of torture, he says.

The reporter says that it was the editors who determined what stories reporters would write and what was ultimately published. Today, they are more willing to give reporters greater leeway than before in pursuing a story. 

“It all depends on the editorial policy of the specific publication,” Abdel-Salam says. “But journalists now are more willing to cover the stories that are happening because more often than not editors are okay with reporting because there isn’t a state of fear that was part of the pre-revolution journalism.”

That state of fear being removed is key, said al-Fagr editor-in-chief Adel Hammouda, who published an article in June critical of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and was subsequently summoned for by the military for rebuke.

“Through the last months, our experience has told us that we go forward with reporting. The people respect our work and they know nobody, even the state newspapers, are misleading the public,” Hammouda says.

“People are beginning to trust journalists and newspapers for the first time in a long, long time because the government isn’t controlling our work anymore,” Hammouda adds.

Yet objectivity has also been a casualty of the birth of the new Egyptian media. Abdel-Salam and others reporting from Tahrir admit that they saw their work as part of the socially conscious effort to push forward the revolution and held a bias toward the revolutionaries. 

“This is our country and we all experienced the former regime for so long that it is hard to take us away from inside the story. We do our best, but in the end this is our Egypt,” he says.

Egyptians are increasingly getting their news updates from televised reports. At a local café early last Friday morning, as a massive demonstration was planned, four employees stand around the television. They are flipping back and forth between ON TV – the network started by telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris and which has garnered much respect among Egyptians in the past five months – and the national television as live images streamed forward. They are arguing whether national television continues to portray the situation with blinders, deliberately leaving out the whole picture.

“We watch ON TV because it gets people from different perspectives and tells the whole story,” says Karim, a 37-year-old “shisha man,” peddling his lit water pipes. He adds that national television is “okay because it shows live images usually, but they don’t really tell the story.”

Another worker is more candid. “I know that ON TV is legit and they are telling the truth,” says Yussif, a 32-year-old waiter at the same café.

This echoes the sentiments of many Egyptians, who during the uprising in January and February were bombarded by national television presenters reporting of the “Israeli and American infiltrators” who were causing the unrest. They know better now and this change in mindset is helping journalists to get their work done in an atmosphere where self-censorship could soon become a thing of the past.

“We are working hard to deliver the story as it happens and the way Egyptians have taken to the media is really positive because it means they understand more of the reality and are not so quick to dismiss one story or another because it comes from a certain paper,” said Mohamed Adel, a reporter with the al-Youm al-Sabaa newspaper.

Adel says even his editors have loosened their apprehension of publishing material that before the revolution could have found them inside court battling the government.

“Things are definitely changing and we are able to report more freely and openly on what is happening in Egypt for the first time, maybe ever,” he added.

Nevertheless, despite the overall optimism, the checkpoints erected by the protesters in Tahrir square are not immune to censoring reporters or media they believe are “giving them a bad name.”

According to a report published on Monday, the protesters barred Al Jazeera’s Arabic crew and a handful of other journalists from entering the square because they did not approve of their recent coverage of the demonstrations.

One US journalist based in Cairo, who was not authorized to speak to the press by his publication, warns  “it should be watched closely because they have to understand what their actions mean.”

Other journalists and photographers have even had their cameras searched by protest security in Tahrir square, a sign that there are still remnants of an older, possibly entrenched attitude in the country that only positive coverage can be tolerated.

Pitching out words of wisdom as he peddles his bottles of water, Gamal says that the newfound respect for the media came from telling “all of the stories, not just one.”

“Not all people are behind the protests and the only way for understanding Egypt is for the media to tell the story,” he adds.

Under autocratic rule for much of its modern history, Egyptian media have towed the state’s line and themselves helped create a void of multiple perspectives.

By dusk, Tahrir square began to stir to life and the protesters take a keen interest in the mushrooming number of journalists, cameramen and photographers who have come to report the sit in. The air is tense and the protesters don’t hide their desire for positive coverage.

Adel from al-Youm al-Saba’a spoke for many Egyptian journalists who suspect the revolutionaries were having too much of a say in what was being reported on them.

“We must be careful not to get too close to the protesters, or we face the same problems that we did before, but from a different perspective,” says Adel. “There are good things and bad things with any revolution so I hope people understand that we are trying to do our best.”

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