The press and the media in Egypt have come under widespread scrutiny in recent times, against a backdrop of press institutions increasingly coming under attack. More and more, media professionals have been accused of not conveying news and information to the public in a professional manner, and of not publishing accurate, credible opinions.
These criticisms have been levelled equally by the state, and by citizens and observer groups, albeit for very different reasons. Meanwhile, calls abound for a unified regulatory and legal framework to meet international standards of journalistic practice.
Hussein Amin, a professor of Journalism and Mass Communication and director of the Kamal Adham Centre for Television and Digital Journalism at the American University in Cairo, highlights the most pertinent issues regarding the media environment in Egypt and the current state of the Egyptian political arena.
What is your evaluation of the national press and its coverage? Are they objective, credible or just following the government agenda?
I cannot assess the Egyptian press or the trends of the press as a whole. The Egyptian press is very diverse, whereby one can find state/governmental media, partisan/opposition media, and independent and private media.
However, since Egypt is a developing nation, it operates under an authoritarian press system, as do many countries in the developing world. This system has several prescriptions and protocols when informing citizens or broadcasting a president’s agenda. When we talk about the authoritarian media system, it means working in a semi-free condition. It is completely different from working in a libertarian media system which is a free environment based on the frame of reference that has long-since been established and recognised in the profession.
Egypt is currently surrounded by many Arab nations in peril following the Arab Spring. Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen are going through civil wars or experiencing political unrest, as well as facing chaos and bias in the media. Certain limitations should be enforced when it comes to issues related to national security. There is continued debate by media scholars and journalists about restrictions on the press in Egypt.
Egypt’s State Information Service released a statement to journalists: “Media coverage has steered away from objectivity and neutrality” which has led to “a distorted image that is very far from the facts.” What is your opinion on this statement?
First, allow me to disagree that a network like Al Jazeera may distort the picture or image of Egypt. It never happened and will not happen. We may consider it an opinion as they think that our media is not objective. There is no such thing as 100% objectivity or neutrality. There is an obvious point I would like to add. In any times of crises and since one main function of the media is to inform and there is one popular communication theory which is agenda setting, in any country passing through a transitional stage, its press will experience some restrictions.
Many people say that nowadays, the state of the media is similar to that of the Mubarak era when there was no free press. What is your opinion?
I will admit that former president Hosni Mubarak did many things wrong, that is why there was a revolution. But let me remind you that he is the man who introduced satellite broadcasting to Egypt. NileSat was born in 1998, Al Jazeera began in 1996 and joined Nile Sat which Mubarak created in the first place. In 2003, Mubarak was the one who called for free internet usage and a diverse platform. At the time, many officials were calling for a single internet provider for the entire country, but Mubarak declined this monopoly over internet usage.
The authoritarian press system has been applied in the majority of developing nations. We cannot blame those working in the press; they are simply following the system. These countries channel their media to cover events or functions. They are considered transitional democracies and their media has not yet achieved the liberty that many more developed countries possess.
However, following the terrorist attack in Brussels and Paris, European media outlets are looking into specific limited censoring of the media. Governments are also calling for emergency laws and measures regarding the media. This does not mean that their media will function like ours, but terrorism has become a variable that interferes with freedom of expression.
Do you believe the foreign media is misrepresenting Egypt, and how?
The issue of negative portrayal is not limited to Egypt. Western media outlets have a strong and powerful influence over other global media. There is distinctive lack of pan-Arab media or agencies, similarly with African countries, that are powerful or effective enough to compete with Western media or to challenge their news agencies. Western media is now considered the global media. This misperception is influencing the entire world. Their media is growing into more cultural industries and we do not see ourselves in this global culture yet. Many Western scholars addressed these issues in their writing.
Negative images of the Middle East and its peoples are prolific in Western media. This has never been questioned or challenged from our side. Recently, the internet has enabled new levels of interactivity by which we can debate and exchange our views with Western individuals and friends.
Egypt is famous across the Arab world for its cultural products, TV shows, films and music. When companies such as CNN, America Online and Time Warner merged together to create a global platform, they become very powerful. Conversely, the tools we started using 20 years ago, such as Nile TV, are now suffering tremendously and need to be restructured to be able to deliver globally.
To counter this, we need consolidate our news agencies and merge Arab transnational and international networks, not to compete and win global audiences from Western networks, but to compete reasonably by delivering real messages to the rest of the world. Arab people have a legacy of wonderful history, a strong language, traditions, and values in addition to an incredible market. If the 22 Arab nations come together—not as governments, but as businesses, NGOs, and civil societies—this will change the balance.
What are the key elements of a free press in a democratic society?
In a democratic society, the press must inform, educate and entertain with no restrictions. Censorship should not exist, but regulations do so the media can grow and enhance the growth of the society. If the press is only allowed function in a restricted environment, the progress of any society is limited and the cultural growth is capped. Almost all constitutions have articles about freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and press regulators. The struggle for a free press and freedom of expression as well as national security will forever be an ongoing struggle.
What changes need to be made to ensure that the Press Syndicate can, in the future, operate free of government control?
In the new National Media Council, there is an immediate need for a media syndicate, but it should be independent. The Press Syndicate is, to some extent, independent but its affiliation with the government is due to our authoritarian media system. We are calling for fewer restrictions on the syndicate by the government. In Egypt, which is transitioning to become a democratic state, we are seeing new media dynamics with the rise of online outlets and social media being used as a viable source. A new syndicate needs to be instated for the new media, bloggers for example. More platforms mean greater development, less monopoly of the press, and better services for journalists.
How are newspapers in Europe and the US different in their approaches to reporting about politics, compared to Egyptian ones?
In Europe, they have different media systems. For example, countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway have a social responsibility media system which it is different than the libertarian system applied elsewhere in Europe and the United States.
When you go into particulars, the press is mainly affiliated with the centre, and some tend to the left-wing and others to the right. Everybody has a different view regarding a particular issue, so outlets, as a whole, cover political news based on this broad range of ideology. This results in a big pool of information which is well rounded and ready for consumption.
Their media outlets can be private, independent, pro-government, critical of the government, or influenced by the army or the church. In this sense, you have a wealth of information because there is a history of media reporting and competition to deliver the best product to the consumer. The immediacy of the information happens in a blink, you do not have to ask for it as it is already there. In our country, people are trying their best to battle restrictions, and poor performance resulting in a product that is not revealing the best information. Accordingly, Egyptian reporting is difficult to consume.
As a professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, what is your evaluation of the level of professionalism of some TV presenters?
I do not have to be a professor of mass communication to make a judgment; it is very obvious and apparent. This multiplicity of channels came about very quickly in absence of any regulator. You would not see this kind of performance in the United States or in Europe. Although, they are libertarians, enjoying their freedom and claiming it, their presenters cannot commit such violations or else they will be penalised and sued.
There is an expression: you cannot scream “fire” in a movie theatre. I hope that when we create a regulatory body, there will be codes to prevent such violations and make our presenters perform in accordance with the standards of their profession.
Is the State Information Service’s (SIS) programme to address foreign media coverage of Egypt effective?
Of course it is not effective enough. This agency has a relatively good reputation and history but their budget is not sufficient for their programme. I think Egypt’s soft powers, public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy need the SIS to act together with proper financing to be able to create events and line up media tools which will encourage Egyptians abroad to share positive things about Egypt with others. This can be achieved by activating the Cairo Press Club to communicate with foreign correspondents.
Reports of torture and brutality by Egyptian security forces have escalated in recent months, provoking debates in several countries in Europe about how to deal with Egypt, such as the European Parliament recommendation pertaining to the case of Giulio Regeni. What is your opinion of these accusations of violations?
Concerning the case of Regeni, there should be critical investigation to study the motive behind this incident. This investigation should be shared with the world. Such incidents will affect all foreigners living in Egypt. The European Parliament has the right to do what they want, but we also have the right to respond and carefully refute everything stated. But first we should look, examine and answer any accusations.
Human rights are violated everywhere in the world. I am not trying to compare and contrast, but assuming there are violations, is this justifiable or not? There are times, in any nation, when stability is lacking, when there are threats to everyone, when people couldn’t leave our homes due to risk of violence.
Normally, in such situations, security forces suffer and the human rights take a backseat. I am not justifying violence, but before taking a side, we have to look at the bigger picture. Firstly, we have to call for more interaction and empathy regarding our security forces. Secondly, we have to think about our position as the oldest country in the world, where one third of the world’s monuments are located, and the tourists who come to visit us. Our status has been severely damaged by acts of terror.
Accordingly, law enforcement should be supported to prevent terrorism. In such a fast-changing environment, the role of the security forces is to keep foreigners in our country safe and secure. If I were a decision maker, I would take more severe measures to try to prevent anyone from harming Egypt. People who criticise will only understand if they walk a day in a leader’s shoes.
What is your opinion of the Red Sea islands’ transfer of sovereignty to Saudi Arabia?
I think that the Egyptian media in general did not handle the matter professionally nor approach it neutrally. The cabinet announcing the islands’ transfer of sovereignty to Saudi Arabia came as a surprise to most Egyptians. The media did not take into account that Egypt’s long-standing guardianship of the islands created a misperception among Egyptians that Egypt owns the two islands and gifted them to Saudi Arabia. If the media had introduced the matter to the public before the transfer, the mass confusion that followed the announcement and triggered demonstrations would not have been as issue. As we all know, the main function of the media is to inform and educate. This did not happen in this case.