Egypt was the first Arab nation to introduce the printing press and is today the region’s largest publishing centre. The country was also the first African and Arab nation to launch its own satellite in 1998. The majority of those working at Arab media networks are Egyptians, and content tends to be produced in Egypt’s Media Production City.
Yet, today, instead of leading a regional media revolution, it appears that private media outlets have surrendered their role as the fourth estate: their role as checks and balances on the division of powers in Egypt is diminishing.
Why is it important for private media to not shy away from holding the government accountable or questioning government policies? The answer goes back to the January 25 revolution in which the youth of Egypt chanted for bread, liberty and freedom: the media’s role as the fourth estate is an essential part of democracy that allows equal participation and a constant flow of information to the people on the various branches of the state.
For the past 30 years, Egypt’s media had moved from a historically state-controlled sphere to a privatized one. Despite the fact that almost all publishing houses of all printed media in Egypt are owned by the government, giving the government great control and influence over distribution, the media had been allowed to flourish in a decentralized and deregulated media system.
Nevertheless, newspapers which are today banning all material which “may incite” or “undermine state institutions directly or indirectly”* (without defining exactly what material is banned) were the ones that were once hailed for their advances.
While the diversity of information sources radically increased, there rapidly – particularly since the 2011 revolution – came the rise of opinion-based, partisan media: the media, particularly talk show hosts, have become a platform that simply echoes the opinions of those hosting it, as opposed to challenging the status quo.
Despite government interference declining greatly from the days when Gamal Abdel Nasser used the media as his own personal mouth piece, corporate interference has risen to new levels, feeding this poisonous atmosphere of partisan media in Egypt. From the suspension of Wael al-Ibrashy’s episode on Dream TV last week for criticizing the Ministries of Education and Housing to the abrupt cancellation of political satirist Bassem Youssef’s show, corporate interests appear to have eclipsed the traditional role of the media as the fourth estate.
A famous example of corporate interference occurred during the 2011 revolution. Dream TV (owned by business tycoon Ahmed Bahgat) ) interviewed a member of April 6 (the youth-group that instigated the anti-regime protests) that claimed to have been trained in Serbia by foreign intelligence on how to overthrow the regime. However, it was soon revealed that the interviewee was a journalist hired to make false accusations because powerful businessmen felt threatened by the protests.
In another example, Faraeen TV anchorwoman Rana al-Duwaik was interrupted by station owner Tawfik Okasha who told her to “go learn!” and cut her program short after she interviewed a critic of the government’s decision to ban April 6.
Most recently, Al-Nahar TV allegedly suspended popular talk show host Mahmoud Saad after he was accused of “demotivating the army” by interviewing a psychologist who recalled the “1967 defeat” of Egypt’s military.
However, these examples, and the latest statement by the country’s top media representatives, are argued to be a “nationalistic duty.”
Yet, is it not their ‘nationalistic duty’ to inform the people of the truth and to take a critical approach?
There is no real media in Egypt
The truth is, the media in Egypt has deteriorated to the extent that it can no longer be considered journalism. In all states where the media is truly flourishing, there are codes that govern the framework of the media. This, while it may exist on paper by the Supreme Press Council, is non-existent in Egypt.
The lack of a code of ethics and a proper media framework in Egypt means that many of Egypt’s top “journalists” are in fact nothing but speaker-phones for their corporate heads, which themselves are often reiterating government rhetoric..
Talk show hosts like Mahmoud Saad are taken off air because their main role, in the eyes of their networks, is not to inform the people, but to advance that network’s corporate presence. In fact, many of Egypt’s top talk show hosts never studied journalism and have likely never been exposed to basic principles of media ethics we see in text books across universities.
The impact of a weak media framework is apparent: many newspapers and television networks are able to transmit and report exaggerations, fabricate news and reports, and commit other infringements as a daily practice without being held accountable. More importantly, they unabashedly celebrate the government’s achievements while often ignoring its failures.
Instead of a code of ethics that applies consistently and equally across the country, advertising agencies and businessmen have implemented their own policies, ensuring content is tailored specifically in a way that does not harm any of their interests.
Still, even if a new, modern media framework is established and supervised by an independent body, that is not enough. Journalists in Egypt must realize that their sacred role is to serve the people: not the government, corporate entities or their own self-interests.
The reality is, if Egyptian media continues to disengage from the real concerns of Egyptian society, then it has betrayed the nation’s 80 million people who expect the media to be advocates in change, not censorship.
The ‘fourth estate,’ if it even exists in the current media environment, will collapse, leaving the people to rely on their own action. And what is more powerful than the collective voices of the people?
*On Sunday, the chief editors of at least 17 private and state-owned newspapers announced that they would be censoring certain criticism of the government. Among the newspapers represented were Al-Ahram, Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Shorouk, Al-Watan, Al-Wafd, Youm7, Al-Ahaly and more.