Egyptian Media Coverage of Protests Improves

Even state broadcasters are airing criticism, although red lines for free speech remain.

Egyptian Media Coverage of Protests Improves

Even state broadcasters are airing criticism, although red lines for free speech remain.

Friday, 25 November, 2011

I have been pleased by the frankness with which Egypt’s media are covering the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

State media haven’t been supporting the protests, but at least they have been showing them.

In January, state television stations just showed pictures of the river Nile. Now they are showing Tahrir Square in its entirety, and they are allowing people to say very harsh things about the ruling military council. It’s a major development for them to feature people who are such strong critics – I saw two people interviewed this morning who were attacking the government as weak.

People are starting to call this the second revolution, so the media don’t want to get caught out by failing to cover everything that’s going on.

The main advance is that unlike before, people are talking without fear, speaking their minds – and that even the state media are letting them do so. That means there’s a smaller gap between state-run and private media than before. People are starting to trust state TV more than they used to, because it has aired such criticism.

The media should reflect the voices of the street, which is what people want to hear. The problem is that there is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty.

Coverage of the forthcoming elections hasn’t been very well organised because people don’t understand the system and the media themselves are still trying to comprehend it.

Instead, the media coverage has focused on discussion programmes and talk shows. It is a bit of a shambles. There is no investigative journalism, no scrutiny – just a lot of shouting. It’s actually getting quite boring.

Although the Egyptian media are very well established, they need to be trained how to cover elections properly – as well as getting more resources and better infrastructure. They are familiar only with passive reporting on past elections.

People within the media haven’t really grasped how democracy can and should change the coverage of an election. Issues like coalition-forming, for instance, have not been clearly explained in the media, and just as happened ahead of the Tunisian elections, voters are confused by the sheer number of parties.

The biggest story is that everybody expects the Muslim Brotherhood to win a sweeping victory. The movement is even planning to launch its own television station and is trying to attract some prominent media figures to front it. The station is expected to be big and make a serious impact. The Brotherhood has the power, the popularity and the money to make it work.

To some extent, the media seem to be trying to give the people what they want. The coverage seems to involve a lot of men with long beards being invited onto talk shows to discuss the role of Islam in Egypt’s future.

The newspapers are the same; it is the Muslim Brotherhood that is dominating the debate.

What’s lacking in the media is the ability to treat everyone fairly. There is limited space for intellectual, liberal, secular ideas.

Candidates have realised what impact the internet had before and during the spring revolution, so they are using it as a tool to publicise themselves and criticise others. Some make serious, well-planned use of the web, while others are more casual.

Much of the criticism – often ridicule – coming from candidates centres on the religious parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

The government media is handling election coverage the way the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the cabinet want them to. The military wants to dominate everything, just as it did in the past.

There is freedom of speech, but only if you don’t go too far in your criticism. After blogger Alaa Abd El Fatah criticised the military, they trumped up allegations against him, and he is now in detention. It has created a dilemma amongst bloggers about just how far they can go in expressing themselves.

As well as putting bloggers in prison, the military has refused to hand out independent broadcasting licenses, and repeatedly shut down Al Jazeera Egypt, accusing the channel of operating without a permit.

The media will have a massive effect during these elections, especially for people who are illiterate and who will watch television and listen to the radio to get information.

There are few local media outlets; everything is centralised. But that is where the outcome will decided, where things are going on, and where people are campaigning. Cairo is not really representative of Egypt.

Many people will decide who to vote for at the last minute. Everybody is worried about the future, and the media are reflecting this chaos.

Fouad Razek is an Egyptian journalist and a former editor at the BBC Arabic Service.

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