An essential part of former dictator Hosni Mubarak's strategy was controlling the media. However, over the last decade, access to television stations such as Al Jazeera and to a lesser extent Al Arabiya, not to mention increasing Internet in Egypt, has meant a losing his grip on the media. Now there's a chance for free and independent media to take root. By SIMON ALLISON.
I wasn’t sure what tense to use for this article. Everything one has to say stems from before the revolution and Mubarak’s departure. Yet the laws and practices outlined here remain in place, as far as we know. In the end, past tense is probably the best choice - partly in hope and optimism, partly because it seems unlikely the new government can completely muzzle the media (even if that’s what it wanted), because, over the last decade, the media has become more and more outspoken even in the face of government pressure.
The advent of the Internet – which Mubarak deliberately made available, at low cost, to as many homes as possible, not realising its potential for unfiltered communication – and satellite television channels, including but not limited to Al Jazeera, meant there were options other than the state-run media. Nonetheless, it is useful to see how Mubarak kept such a tight grip on his media, if only to prevent it happening again.
Certainly, the demonstrators understood how important the government’s control over the press was to the exercise of his power. Last Thursday night, disappointed and angered by Mubarak’s defiant speech – the one where he said he understood all the protesters’ concerns, but was going to stay on anyway, and then discussed the excellence of his own record at length – the millions of people in Tahrir Square began to look for a new target. The square, after all, was full and clearly the regime was not getting the message. A few ambitious souls struck out on the 8km walk to the presidential palace in Heliopolis. Many more, however, had a closer target in mind – the imposing river-side headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, known as the Maspero, from where Mubarak’s state had monopolised the terrestrial airwaves for 30 years.
This was no idle choice. Control of information is the cornerstone of any police state, the theory being that what the people know will determine how they act. To control the people, you must control the information they get. And so, building on the work of his predecessors, Sadat and Nasser, Mubarak created a system of norms, laws, intimidation and punishment which effectively muzzled the press for most of his tenure.
The bulk of the press, of course, was state owned. TV, radio and most of the newspapers. Of the newspapers, the most prominent is Al Ahram, which has by far the largest circulation in Egypt, and is also one of the best-read newspapers in the Middle East - proof, if any, that propaganda is an export commodity. These newspapers toed the party line, with editors appointed by the president and journalists subject to threats if they didn’t comply. How this works in practice was revealed by Shahira Amin, a state TV presenter who quit during the recent protests. She revealed how she would be bullied and threatened every time she tried to publish a story even mildly critical of the regime; one security officer told her she might “disappear off the face of the earth”.
And Amin was fortunate in that she did have some protection by virtue of being an accredited journalist, registered with the national Syndicate of Journalists. This great bastion of Egyptian journalism, to which every journalist must belong, is housed in a large, modern building in downtown Cairo, all marble and reflective glass windows and not too far from Tahrir Square. In theory, the body exists to allow journalists to self-regulate, to protect their own interests and to protect their profession. But the syndicate was yet another facet of the mechanisms of information control, with its leadership taken directly from the ruling-party ranks.
It was notoriously difficult to get into the syndicate. Along with other stringent requirements, it was necessary for prospective members to already be professional journalists. And yet one cannot practice journalism without being in the syndicate. This unusual and logic-defying clause was used to good effect to keep membership selective. Many journalists were denied entry, which forced them to work illegally. The regime tolerated this, because it meant that whenever an independent journalist said something the regime did not like, it was able to punish him legally, by charging him with pretending to be a journalist.
Photo: The headquarters of the Syndicate of Journalists, Cairo. (Photo: Muhammad Mahdy.)
This was a useful tactic because journalists could not be prosecuted just for being critical. By law, freedom of the press is guaranteed in Egypt, both in the constitution and in various pieces of legislation. Mubarak bought into this. A few years ago, he reportedly said the state continuously supports “the freedom of the press and its independence, and that non-interference in its internal affairs is deeply rooted and a constant fact.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF – Reporters sans Frontieres) would disagree. It put Egypt at 127th on the 2010 Index of Press Freedom - four places behind Zimbabwe. On Freedom House’s 2009 map of press freedom, Egypt is labelled as “partly free”. The description of the country, however, goes on to list a litany of complaints: “In addition to legal and regulatory harassment, journalists and bloggers in 2009 commonly faced physical assaults, illegal detention, abduction and confiscation of equipment.”
Despite all this, the last decade saw increasing challenges to state control over media. Bloggers in particular have played an important role in this, becoming news providers in their own right. Facebook too has helped, with friends able to share links and stories, making it impossible for the state to remove information that had escaped into the public sphere. The development of satellite news channels such as Al Jazeera and, to a lesser extent, Al Arabiya, meant many people for the first time had access to television news that was not written by the state itself. Indeed, Al Jazeera was often critical of the regime.
Because these channels are not based in Egypt, they are much harder to control. This is not to say the citizens believed everything they heard on satellite news. Certainly there remains a suspicion among many that Al Jazeera is a Qatari mouthpiece (although the channel has won itself legions of fans with its coverage of the revolution), while Al Arabiya waves the flag for its Saudi paymasters. But the mere fact that different views were represented was a revelation in itself. At the same time, independent newspapers became more bold, with titles such as Al Masry Al Youm developing a reputation as an unbiased news source.
This gradual opening of the media space has been suddenly accelerated with the departure of Mubarak. While it is early days yet, Egyptians are undoubtedly aware of the importance of a free media and it will be a crucial part of the reforms and negotiations in the next few months.
As has been noted [http://www.freeafricanmedia.com/article/2011-02-07-egypt-journalists-may-be-detained-but-they-will-be-not-frightened-or-deterred]: “A key indicator of real change [in Egypt] will be whether an independent media is allowed and encouraged to flourish.” For in the absence of strong, independent journalism, it’s all too easy for those in power to control information for their own ends, as Hosni Mubarak did for so long. But he’s gone, and we all hope he’s taken his propaganda machine with him. FAM
Simon Allison is a specialist in African and Middle East politics, with degrees from Rhodes university and the School of Oriental and African Studies. He lived in Egypt for four years. He also co-authors the politics blog Third World Goes Forth.
Photo: An opposition supporter holds up a laptop showing images of celebrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, after Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak resigned February 11, 2011. Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt on Friday after 30 years of rule, handing power to the army and bowing to relentless pressure from a popular uprising after his military support. "New media, mainly satellite channels, have managed to spread the message of the revolution everywhere, including rural areas," said Abdel Fattah of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been a key means of communications for the protesters. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
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