A freer press will allow Egyptian journalists to 'shine'

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Journalism experts are now debating the changing role of the media in Egypt’s emerging post-revolution period.

They are seeking to move Egyptian society beyond the repressive policies which simultaneously allowed state-owned media to thrive as a vehicle for propaganda while government restrictions stifled the independent press.

Many, such as Hafez Mirazi, director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research, believe that the public is itself a catalyst for progress in Egyptian media.

“We have the revolution to thank [for this opportunity], but we must take the initiative. We have to start changing ourselves and our industry,” Mirazi said.

“It can’t be about the ‘me’ factor anymore; not ‘what can I gain from this’ or ‘how can I make this benefit me?’ but we have to look to society as a whole.”

The former Al Jazeera Washington bureau chief recently teamed up with the Egyptian Civil Society Project to mediate a forum that brought newscasters, producers, journalists and high-ranking government officials together to discuss the in-

cipient media frontier. Experts from various local and international

news networks, along with journalists from many parts of Egypt including South Sinai and Upper Egypt, joined the forum to debate and suggest solutions for some of the challenges they routinely faced.

Such open discussions and forums, which were rare during Mubarak’s reign, have provided an opportunity for journalists to share ideas.

“I am telling you a true story, 90 percent of the time, our camera did not work,” one reporter from Minya complained. “We do not have microphones, or internet access, or phone lines. How can we work like this?”

Hamdi Farah Allah, a broadcasting cooperation manager at BBC Arabic Television, said as long as there are places in Egypt “that use tuk-tuks with [mounted] microphones to spread the news, then this country still needs change in media.”

The forum’s participants called for advanced technology to be introduced to news stations across Egypt, providing trainings to news reporters and engineers, and making FM radio wavelengths available to the entire country.

They also said they were concerned by the lack of communication between the media and the public. According to Sami Sherif, the president of the Union for Television and Radio Broadcasters, the media must represent the citizens rather than serve as the government’s mouthpiece.

“We need to go out and ask the people what they want to see and what they want to hear from us; not the other way where we cater to authorities.”

The declining popularity of local media began well before the revolution, but fell to a new low when state-owned television provided a distorted picture of the protests in Tahrir.

At first, most print and broadcast media depicted the protesters as foreign agents and anarchists, choosing also to ignore coverage of Tahrir Square or mention of communal disdain for the former government.

Public trust further deteriorated after stateowned media did an about face and began lauding the protesters as martyrs and heroes just days before the former president stepped down.

“People have lost any credibility they had for the Egyptian media. It will be a while before they manage to regain any of that back,” Rasha Abdulla, an associate professor and journalism Chair at AUC, said. She added that the shift in state-owned media’s depiction of Mubarak before and after February 11 revealed a lack of professional standards.

Freedom House, a US-based organization which monitors civil and media liberties and publishes annual reports, downgraded Egypt’s press as “not free” in its audit for 2010.

Anger toward state-owned media has turned many Egyptians toward independent newspapers such as AlMasry AlYoum. Yasser Abdel Aziz, a journalist for Al Akhbar, said that media is currently undergoing a “chaotic [and] irresponsible freedom,” where previous restrictions and agendas have come to an end.

Many in the field welcome the freeing of the media, finding it an opportunity for Egyptians to embrace the power of the press.

Ali Salem, head of engineering at Al Jazeera, said that his network had depended largely on its Egyptian journalists during the revolution. “Egyptian media has enormous potential, determination and manpower,” he said.

Minister of Local Development Mohsen El Naemany agreed that “Egyptian media is one of the richest in potential. It has the talent, the manpower and the drive; it just needs opportunities to shine.”