In Egypt, an unhappy medium

What's fit to print after a military coup has become a dangerous question for journalists

Reporters run for cover as police clear a protest camp occupied by supporters of Egypt's ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, in Cairo on August 14, 2013.
Mosaab El-Shamy/AFP/Getty Images
Draa, fifth from left, in a photograph released by security forces.

CAIRO, Egypt — In early September, local journalist Ahmed Abou Draa went looking for a relative he believed was being held in a military facility in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Instead, Draa himself was arrested, held for investigation, and sent before a military tribunal.

Three months earlier, Draa had been on a stage in a jacket and tie, accepting the European Union’s Samir Kassir Award for an article about human trafficking in the Sinai. Now, he faced charges of publishing false news about the armed forces and trespassing in a military zone.

The day after his arrest, to his friends’ astonishment, he appeared in a newspaper photograph wearing a stained white t-shirt, standing among seven bedraggled men identified in the caption as “terrorist elements arrested by the army.” 

His arrest and public shaming, colleagues suspected, was retribution: Draa had recently reported that a military assault near the north Sinai village of Sheikh Zuweid — supposedly against jihadist strongholds — had actually destroyed civilian homes, damaged a mosque, and wounded four innocent people.

“This is an unprecedented action, even under Mubarak’s regime,” Mostafa Singar, another Sinai-based journalist, said of Draa’s arrest and shaming. “I see it as an extremely stupid action, for a regime that is still trying to stand on its feet.”

Draa was the first journalist to go before a military court since the July 3 coup toppled the country’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a former top official in the Muslim Brotherhood. The coup polarized much of Egyptian society between the military’s supporters, who dominate the government and the airwaves, and its opponents, many of them Islamists, who have been marginalized and suppressed. More than 1,000 people have died, many more have been injured or arrested, and Morsi’s supporters have been muzzled.

On Saturday, Draa was released after the court handed down a suspended six-month sentence for spreading false information. If he commits another offense within three years, the sentence could be reimposed.

"[The military] wanted to send a message that, 'We are very strong; don’t talk about us,'" Draa's lawyer, Negad el-Borai, told the New York Times.

Draa's arrest, coming amid a wave of nationalist sentiment, has raised concerns that a new crackdown on the press may extend beyond Morsi supporters to anyone who challenges the military-backed interim government, which recently extended a countrywide state of emergency in place since security forces brutally dispersed pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14. The mainstream media — already hostile to the Brotherhood, and under pressure from the armed forces — have shown little appetite for resistance.

“By and large, the majority of the Egyptian press is marching to the tune of the military ... willfully and with conviction,” Adel Iskandar, an Arab media scholar at Georgetown University, said. “If you’re with the Brotherhood, it’s as if you’re a separate breed of Egyptian.”

Most outlets were founded or remain owned by powerful businessmen who made their fortunes under Mubarak. Many are tied to political interests.

Egypt’s private media, though vibrant, has always operated within limits. During the final years of Hosni Mubarak’s nearly unchallenged three-decade rule, even as reporters became less circumspect in their criticism of his business cronyism and widely suspected plan to hand power to his son Gamal, most avoided crossing so-called “red lines,” including any serious investigation of the military establishment that directs much of Egypt’s economy and serves as the regime’s backbone. 

Most outlets — especially among television channels that wield huge influence in a country with adult illiteracy near 30 percent — were founded or remain owned by powerful businessmen who made their fortunes under Mubarak. Many are tied to political interests.

Naguib Sawiris, a telecommunications mogul and founder of the Free Egyptians Party, launched ONtv before selling it to a liberal Tunisian film producer; El Sayed El Badawi, a pharmaceuticals executive and head of the state-friendly Wafd Party, owns Al Hayat; Mohammed el-Amin, once a business partner to Mubarak-era real estate magnate Mansour Amer, owns CBC, which employs as a top anchor former Mubarak media advisor Lamis el-Hadidi. Tarek Nour, the owner of Al Qahira Wel Nas, is one of the country's most powerful marketers; a newspaper editorial once described him as the "spoiled adman" of Mubarak's political party, and his company produced campaign advertisements for Mubarak in 2005 and Morsi's opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, in 2012.

Such outlets are privately owned, but few Egyptians describe them as independent. During the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, stations such as Badawi's Al Hayat and Al Mehwar — founded by Hassan Rateb, chairman of the $1.3 billion Sinai Cement Company — often railed against the protests.

After Mubarak gave way to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that February, many outlets proceeded to ingratiate themselves with the generals. In July 2011, Dream TV owner Ahmed Bahgat — whose real estate and television manufacturing empire reportedly thrived through Mubarak connections — fired morning talk show host Dina Abdelrahman after she aired criticisms of the military. When the generals could not persuade media owners to side with them, they applied brute force: During an attack on Coptic Christian protesters outside state media headquarters that October, soldiers stormed and shut down 25TV and Al Hurra, two stations that were broadcasting the army rampage.

News photographers hold up their cameras as they protest what they said were the Morsi government's harsh policies against them­, in front of the Shura Council in Cairo, Egypt, on March 19, 2013.
Khaled Desouki/EPA/Landov

After Morsi won election in June 2012, he did little to cultivate a skeptical media.

The new constitution retained restrictions on those who criticized religion or the government, and the upper house of parliament appointed state newspaper editors seen by many peers as reactionary or Islamist, instead of diversifying newsrooms. Petitioners filed four times as many lawsuits for insulting the president in the first 200 days of Morsi’s administration than during 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. The prosecutor general, appointed by Morsi in an extrajudicial declaration, followed through on some of them. 

“Morsi publicly accused the media of going after him and had a hostile and intolerant attitude toward the media, which began this polarization,” Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said.

Dozens of journalists covering protests against Morsi during his presidency were assaulted by his supporters, and one newspaper reporter, El-Hosseini Abu Deif, was shot dead. The following month, another Sinai-based reporter was charged in military court for filming in a prohibited area. More than once, supporters angry over what they saw as anti-Islamist bias besieged Media Production City, a compound in a western suburb of the capital where most private television stations broadcast.

Bassem Youssef, the host of a wildly popular satirical news show on CBC, was among those formally investigated for insulting Morsi, while the government mostly tolerated sectarian anchors like Al Nas channel’s Khaled Abdallah, who helped spark protests across the Middle East after airing an excerpt from a crude amateur film about the prophet Muhammad, “Innocence of Muslims.” On June 27, three days before the mass protests against him began, Morsi used parts of an hours-long speech to threaten his media opponents, including CBC’s Amin and Dream’s Bahgat, whom he accused of owing vast amounts in unpaid taxes.

“He’s a tax evader, let him pay,” Morsi reportedly said of Amin. “He unleashes his channel against us.”

By July, with the national economy crumbling and the streets succumbing to protests and mob violence, many reporters and editors seemed to view Morsi and the Brotherhood as an existential threat both to their livelihoods and Egypt’s national identity. In the hours after the coup, some newsrooms burst into open celebration. At ONtv, staffers gathered around the anchor’s desk, clapping, dancing, and singing the national anthem.

“When you feel that your country is under attack or losing its identity, you feel like you are losing your country and sometimes losing yourself,” Albert Shafik, ONtv’s director, said. “We were celebrating, even onscreen, because we felt like we were losing our country, and now we are getting it back.”

The day after nationwide marches called by the Brotherhood to counter the military ended with clashes and at least 36 people dead, Hadidi, the CBC anchor, said that 'terrorism' had been 'unmasked.'
A man reads the since-banned newspaper of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, Freedom and Justice, in Cairo, Egypt, on September 3, 2013.
Amr Abdallay Dalsh/Reuters/Landov

Since the coup, five journalists have been killed and at least 40 arrested, and as many as 10 may remain in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. Five television stations considered sympathetic to Morsi, including conservative religious networks and the Brotherhood’s own Egypt 25 channel, have been shut down.

The official newspaper of the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, was ordered closed late last month. Other outlets that have criticized Morsi’s overthrow have been targeted: Al Jazeera’s Live Egypt affiliate has been raided by security forces and banned by the government, though it continues to operate; three Turkish outlets, including state broadcaster TRT, have been raided; and the state-owned satellite broadcaster Nilesat has jammed three pan-Arab channels.

Many newspapers and television stations fell in line with the military. On June 30, when the armed forces wanted to spread footage of the massive, countrywide protests against Morsi that broke out three days before the coup, and which soldiers had filmed from circling helicopters, it gave the tapes to CBC, which broadcast them with patriotic musical accompaniment.

Thinly sourced articles detailing elaborate Brotherhood conspiracies to divide and sabotage Egypt in alliance with the United States and other foreign powers reached the pages of Al Ahram, the state’s flagship newspaper. One prompted former U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson to respond publicly, calling it “outrageous,” “fictitious” and “a real threat to Egypt.”

After the coup, most television channels added graphic banners to their broadcasts declaring in nearly identical wording that Egypt was under threat from “terrorism,” a reference to the Brotherhood. In July, the day after nationwide marches called by the Brotherhood to counter the military ended with clashes and at least 36 people dead, Hadidi, the CBC anchor, said that “terrorism” had been “unmasked.”

The Brotherhood, Hadidi said, was the so-called "third party" — the hidden force long invoked by the government to explain away calamities. Echoing a narrative favored by Mubarak regime affiliates, she blamed them for the violence that had racked Egypt during the anti-Mubarak protests: “Who were those who killed the people in Tahrir Square, we asked. Who were those who opened the prisons, we asked … We have opened a black page in the history of this group.”

Later that month, General Abdelfattah el-Sisi, the defense minister who forced out Morsi, called on citizens to give him a “mandate” to confront “violence and terrorism.” Two days later, tens of thousands protested for him, and at least 80 Morsi supporters died when police confronted them as they tried to block a road. On August 14, police cleared the largest pro-Morsi sit-in, at the Rabaa el-Adaweya Mosque, leaving at least 377 people dead in what Human Rights Watch called the worst mass killing of civilians in Egypt’s modern history.

For weeks, the country’s largest channels had not been broadcasting from the pro-Morsi protest camps, and when security forces crushed the Rabaa el-Adaweya sit-in, few outlets dispatched reporters.

“The worst of the worst for me is that some close colleagues who’ve been participating in the revolution since the first day … they are not listening to or seeing the point of view of the other, the Brotherhood,” said Sabah Hamamou, a veteran business reporter at Al Ahram who has been an outspoken critic of her employer and other outlets. “When the revolution happened, it seemed, everybody put on the mask of the revolution.”

Unlike most of her colleagues, who disparaged the pro-Morsi protests without visiting them, Hamamou said she had made several trips to Rabaa el-Adaweya to shoot video and photographs. She had friends in the Brotherhood and had previously worked with them at charity events. When Al Ahram declined to use her material, she uploaded it to her YouTube channel and blog, Masraweyya. 

On August 14, after the violence ebbed at the sit-in, she visited again: “I was tweeting to everybody, people who died in this day, they did not fly to the sky, the dead bodies [are] scattered around me everywhere.”

Colleagues responded, questioning her account. A reporter at the scene from the newspaper Al Youm Al Sabaa, knowing his editors also would not publish his videos, asked Hamamou to pass his work to Al Jazeera, one of the only major networks openly criticizing the coup.

“I mean, there was no media the night of Rabaa, documenting what happened,” Hamamou said. “Maybe there are some riding the wave, because maybe it’s in their interest not to be critical of the current regime, because there’s some opportunity there.”

ONtv’s coverage of Morsi’s overthrow, [Shafik] said, had been 'firstly Egyptian and then professional.'

Since the killings, critics say, coverage has hardly improved. The widespread and almost uniform favor granted to the military’s actions led some journalists to question whether top editors and media owners were intentionally distorting coverage, or coordinating their efforts with the government and security forces.

A recently leaked video seemed to confirm some of those fears. Apparently filmed before the coup, it showed Sisi and a group of high-ranking officers discussing how to re-instate the "red lines" against criticizing the military that had faded after Mubarak's fall. One officer suggested the military "cajole or intimidate" private media moguls, whom he said were eager for a good relationship.

Sisi promised that efforts were underway. "The rules and the shackles were dismantled, and they are being rearranged," he said.

Khaled, a journalist who covered the Morsi administration for one of Egypt's most widely-read private newspapers and asked not to be identified, said he believed his editors were eager to work with the military, which often exercised its influence through faxes and phone calls from the Morale Affairs Department. Such faxes, distributed widely among Egyptian outlets, typically contained information the military wanted to appear in articles and broadcasts, as well as suggestions for coverage and angles to take.

Often, Khaled said, the information was laughably false, such as a fax he received while working on the newspaper’s foreign desk in 2009, stating that Hamas fielded an army of 500,000 troops. Nevertheless, editors often told reporters to turn such releases into articles, he said.

After the June 30 protests broke out against Morsi, he said, faxes and phone calls from the military increased. The homogeneous coverage that emerged from various outlets, like their “war on terrorism” banners or sudden shift into the English language — an attempt, some speculated, to sway foreign journalists and viewers — was a result of military influence, he believed. 

Khaled, who attended protests against Morsi's ouster after the coup, said some colleagues now accused him of being a Brotherhood member.

Shafik, the ONtv director, said that the news bulletins and announcements his network received from the military were harmless, akin to the mundane public affairs operations of the U.S. Defense Department. They never amounted to “suggestions” about how to cover events, he said. 

ONtv’s coverage of Morsi’s overthrow had been “firstly Egyptian and then professional,” he said, adding that he believed the country’s fight against terrorism would continue.

“A few people belonging to the Brotherhood are trying to appear as the victims, and I do not think that they are victims at all,” he said.

Many outlets witnessed a flood of daily faxes and follow-up phone calls from the Morale Affairs Department in the 16 months of military rule that followed Mubarak. Generals sometimes called channels during live broadcasts, demanding to be put on air to respond to guests or anchors. Some continue to hold meetings with top editors and owners. (In March, after ONtv's star investigative host Yosri Fouda was seriously injured in a car accident, the military's official spokesman visited him in hospital, and Sisi reportedly granted him use of a military medical helicopter).

Sometimes, tactics could be harsher. The month after Mubarak stepped down, Reem Maged, a colleague of Fouda's at ONtv, was interrogated after one of her guests accused the military police of torture. But in those early months, obedience was still hardly guaranteed.

“Sometimes they’d tear up the faxes. They’d literally ignore them,” Iskandar said. “The discourse was extremely hostile to [the military].”

Earlier this month, the tabloid weekly companion magazine to Al Ahram published what it called a 'blacklist of the fifth column,' naming a host of Islamist and progressive figures who had criticized or expressed reservations about the new government.

Since the coup, alternative voices have either disappeared or been pushed into silence. Youssef, the CBC comedian who often criticized Morsi, has not appeared on television since July 3, though he has written articles questioning the crackdown. The death of his mother in September extended his hiatus. Fouda stopped work on July 9. The network, in a statement, said he had left to finish medical treatment stemming from his accident and would return in October. Maged also went on leave, without fanfare.

“I was not suspended or prevented from working at @ontveg,” she tweeted in late August. “But sometimes to be silent is the most honest news, so I chose silence until further notice.”

In September, the tabloid weekly companion magazine to Al Ahram published what it called a “blacklist of the fifth column,” naming a host of Islamist and progressive figures who had criticized or expressed reservations about the new government. The list included Mohamed ElBaradei, who resigned as vice president and left Egypt after the Rabaa el-Adaweya killings, and Amr Hamzawy, a liberal politician who had been opposed to Morsi but questioned the crackdown. Twitter users posting under the hashtag “fifth column” added to the list Fouda, Maged and a host of activists who, in addition to criticizing the military, had organized against both Mubarak and Morsi.

“This is a worrying trend and a backward slide to the pre-January 2011 media atmosphere,” said Shahira Amin, who resigned as deputy chief of state-owned Nile TV during the 2011 uprising.

Though Amin rejoined the channel as host of a news talk show months after resigning, seeing an opening for more honest coverage after Mubarak’s fall, her show was canceled after the coup, she said. Colleagues had complained about an interview she gave to CNN, in which Amin had described the movement to unseat Morsi as “a rebellion by the people” that was “increasingly looking like a coup” and had been driven by “state security, Mubarak loyalists and probably the intelligence, the police and the military.”

Ahmed Mansour, an Egyptian Al Jazeera news presenter and one of the network’s well-known personalities, was filmed speaking at a conference of Morsi supporters, advising them how to shape their slogans and public presentation.

The only major network willing to challenge the military’s narrative, Al Jazeera, is widely viewed in Egypt as hopelessly biased in favor of the Brotherhood and the foreign policy of Qatar, which owns the network and supported Morsi’s government with $8 billion in loans and grants. Once heralded as the voice of the anti-Mubarak uprising, Al Jazeera is now loathed in many quarters, and few watch it in public.

Critics cite a litany of lapses and deceits: silencing interview subjects who spoke fondly of Mubarak’s rule; selecting guests unlikely to challenge the Brotherhood while allowing its supporters to speak at length; and praising Morsi as a transformative leader while ignoring massive protests against him.

Al Jazeera’s controversial editorial line reportedly spurred some staff members to resign. Dissent even appeared within the Qatar-based English newsroom, where journalists complained to a local news website that a senior anchor had been excoriated and removed from regular presenting duties after she challenged a Brotherhood guest in the wake of the Rabaa el-Adaweya killings.

A day after Morsi’s fall, Ahmed Mansour, an Egyptian Al Jazeera news presenter and one of the network’s well-known personalities, was quoted on the Brotherhood’s website calling the military-appointed interim president a Jew “who hates religion.” Four days later, he was filmed speaking at a conference of Morsi supporters, advising them how to shape their slogans and public presentation.

“We need to completely change our rhetoric,” he said. “They are the June 30 coup, and we are the January 25 revolution.”

Ghassan Abu Hussein, an Al Jazeera spokesman, said the network’s channels had been covering Egypt “from both angles” despite a daily “hate campaign.” Those who accused the network of bias “either don’t watch Al Jazeera … or have a problem with other opinions,” he said. 

“To give you a proof of what I am saying, just go back to the night of July 3, when the military took over in a coup and the security forces came to shut down our bureaus,” he said. “There were three guests live on Al Jazeera Arabic. Two of them were anti–Mohamed Morsi.”

Since Morsi’s fall, 45 Al Jazeera journalists have been subject to detainment or imprisonment, Hussein said. He dismissed the reports of complaints in the English newsroom as “baseless and untrue” conspiracy theories.

Nevertheless, the network’s perceived partisanship infuriated many Egyptians, and Al Jazeera’s journalists are now often targeted by both civilians and police. Egyptian reporters mistaken for Al Jazeera employees are occasionally attacked. 

But even those who criticized Al Jazeera said that outlets across the political spectrum had failed. 

“The fact is Al Jazeera is not the only channel operating with no professional standards; most of the media scene in Egypt today has unfortunately become so polarized that it has lost much of its professionalism,” Rasha Abdulla, the head of the American University in Cairo’s journalism and mass communication department, wrote.

'They see the Muslim Brotherhood as a greater threat to them ideologically than the Egyptian military,' Iskandar said

Writing days before the coup, Mohamed Elmasry, an assistant professor in Abdulla's department, described the anti-Morsi rhetoric as “unlike anything I have ever seen, primarily because news reporters and organizations — rather than political figures — seem to spearhead the propaganda efforts.”

Nightly news shows on Dream TV, CBC and ONtv in the run-up to the June anti-Morsi protests betrayed a uniform “anti-Islamist” slant among their guests and story angles, he wrote.

Now, even journalists troubled by the extent of the government’s bloody crackdown seem disinclined to listen when protesters call for undoing the coup or restoring Morsi’s administration.

“They see the Muslim Brotherhood as a greater threat to them ideologically than the Egyptian military,” Iskandar said. “I think there is a desire to stay quiet during this transition period on the part of many journalists who don’t like what they see but are too concerned about the alternative.”

In post-coup Egypt, the military’s traditional methods of influence may prove unnecessary, with the generals facing receptive journalists and a large segment of the public that sees the military, Iskandar said, as “messianic saviors.” 

Mansour, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that the slogans and coverage that emerged in state and private media after the coup made it clear that there was “some sort of coordination” in favor of the government.

“We are not sure if it resulted from self-censorship, editorial control or just pure partisanship,” he said. “It has become a very distinct conflict between two camps, and both camps were using their media to only cover news from their perspective, and in many ways that amounts to pure propaganda.”

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