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Courtesy of www.mohamedazazy.com
Jahd Khalil
Last updated: June 4, 2014

Back to square one for Egypt’s media?

Banner Icon In the sprawling desert west of Cairo, a huge complex of studios for the Arab world’s largest media market beams content to NileSat, the Egyptian state-owned satellite provider. Despite the size of the market, not to mention the dynamism of uprisings that have unseated two presidents, the structure and nature of Egypt’s media landscape remains fairly unchanged compared to three years ago.

Most media, both print and broadcast, fall in one of two categories: that controlled by the state and that controlled by oligarchs.

Though seemingly quite different categories, which should be expected to offer divergent narratives, the distinction between them is oftentimes indiscernible. Both groups largely protect the status quo, and only rarely provide alternative viewpoints. When they do, they usually reflect some sort of infighting between the many poles of power that constitute the Egyptian regime.

"What has changed since 2011 is an increase in dangers and content restrictions"

After a brief flirtation with a different editorial line in 2011 and 2012 — in the aftermath of the January 25 uprising — many then-alternative news stations reverted back to the government’s line after the June 30 2013 protests and subsequent unseating of former President Mohamed Morsi.

What has changed since the uprising in 2011 is an increase in dangers and content restrictions. Journalists are in effect worse off than before.

At least 200 journalists have been detained since January 2011, says the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. This does not include citizens’ arrests or detainment, which is increasingly prevalent due in part to the government categorising the parts of the press corps that do not adhere to its line as a “fifth column” opposed to the interests of the state.

The most high profile of these cases has been the Al-Jazeera trial, in which 20 are charged with spreading false news and being members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood organisation. Five journalists, including foreign and dual citizens remain in custody and are currently on trial.

Beyond the risk of arrest, there’s the risk of death or injury while covering street clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators.

Reporters Without Borders says at least nine journalists have been killed since January 2011, and 50 have been injured. The risks facing journalists became more acute after Morsi’s ouster, as demonstrations and the response of security forces became more violent.

Last month, after a journalist from the privately owned Al-Dostour was shot at protests, the government gave the Journalists’ Syndicate, the state union, 100 bulletproof vests. While the vests are labeled with “Press” in both Arabic and English, they were cut from desert camouflage cloth, which makes it easy to mistake media personnel for security forces.

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Although some professional journalists have carved out their own space inside the mainstream channels, many have left journalism altogether lest they compromise their views, or viewership. Yousry Fouda, Reem Maged, Dina Abdel Rahman, and to a lesser extent Mona el-Shazly, were among the talk show hosts that brought a critical view to the news. Following the military’s ousting of Morsi in July, many took a brief hiatus, some never to return. Yousry Fouda eventually made a comeback and promised not to compromise his own ethics. Maged has remained out of the spotlight, while Shazly and Abdel Rahman moved to new channels and have had fluctuating appearances on their talk shows. They are both now off the air.

On the print side of journalism, the same phenomenon exists. The highly critical opinions of Belal Fadl, a columnist with the privately owned Al-Shorouq newspaper, often poked holes in conventional wisdom with historical anecdotes and a knack for storytelling. He left Shorouq after a dispute with editors. Another columnist, Wael Gamal has continued to write despite his editors refusing to publish a few of his columns.

However, a few innovative platforms do exist, and there seems to be a growing number of digital news outlets mushrooming online.

"There seems to be a growing number of digital news outlets mushrooming online"

Though not explicitly a news-oriented program, Bassem Youssef’s satire show, Al Bernameg, has upset many of his own viewers with Youssef’s criticism of the prevailing culture of adhering to government positions and, more so, idolising former defence minister turned favoured presidential candidate, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who has funded portions of Egypt’s largest private paper and the satellite channel ONtv, will be launching a news website to be edited by a leftist journalist.

Still, these alternative platforms adhere to the ownership dichotomy of the state and large businessmen and do little to address the structural issues facing Egyptian media.

Mada Masr was launched in late June of 2013 after the staff was fired from Egypt Independent, an English-language publication owned by the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. Owned and operated by the same group of journalists and editors, Mada Masr seeks to be independent not just in editorial form but also in funding and ownership. The company’s structure is set up so that journalists are in control as they produce quality news and nuanced in-depth analysis, while navigating a highly polarised media landscape.

A number of other digital news outlets have since begun operating and are currently shaping their coverage and readership. While alternative platforms have a small space, their readership has the potential to grow. It remains to be seen what kind of broad impact they can have on the engrained issues facing Egyptian society, politics and economics, which continue to go unaddressed by the government and government-friendly media.

Jahd is a Cairo-based journalist who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Al-Monitor, Deustche Welle, and currently Mada Masr. This article is mirrored from IMS.

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