x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Media freedom is won, then lost in Egypt

State-owned media quickly ditched its overwhelming support of Hosni Mubarak's regime but critics say the media have now become a mouthpiece for the new military rulers.

Men in Cairo watch the trial of Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, and the former interior minister, Habib Al Adli, on state television this summer.
Men in Cairo watch the trial of Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, and the former interior minister, Habib Al Adli, on state television this summer.

CAIRO //It was a refreshing change brought about by the Arab Spring but, predictably, did not last long.

Egypt's state-owned media, for decades the mouthpiece of Hosni Mubarak's regime, transformed itself overnight when the president stepped down in February.

Suddenly, the protesters were no longer "agents for foreign powers" but "activists" who engineered a glorious revolution.

Mr Mubarak was no longer the leader who could do no wrong but the "deposed president" or, in some cases, the "tyrant".

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organised opposition group, was no longer referred to as the "banned group".

Its leaders, who once languished in Mr Mubarak's jails, were invited to write in newspaper opinion pages and interviewed at length.

The change of heart took place under the same editorial leadership that treated the regime and its stalwarts with reverence bordering on worship. But the state media's "spring" was short lived.

Gradually, the young revolutionaries - the driving force behind Mr Mubarak's demise - were no longer invited on to talk shows. Coverage of their activities disappeared.

The operations of the military council that took over became a staple of television and radio news bulletins and front pages.

The reversal of the short-lived liberal editorial policies adopted after the president's fall took place as relations between the military and the youth groups deteriorated, and as activists nationwide began accusing the generals of mishandling what was meant to be a transition to democracy.

The youth groups also made accusations of human rights abuses and secrecy against the military rulers.

Egypt's state media had traditionally been both the voice and the tool of whoever rules. It was not just Mr Mubarak it treated as a deity, but Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser before him.

The state press and television now heap their praise upon the military council and its chairman, Mr Mubarak's longtime defence minister, Hussein Tantawi.

What was unexpected was how far the state media, particularly television, were willing to go to in their support of the generals.

This was made particularly clear on October 9, when clashes between Christian protesters and soldiers, riot police and their civilian supporters killed 27 people. The dead were mostly Christians.

Presenters on state television called on "honourable" Egyptians to hurry to the rescue of the army which, they said, was coming under attack from Christians.

The calls resonated among Muslims in areas close to the television building next to the Nile in central Cairo where the protests took place.

Young men armed with sticks, swords and knives set upon the protesters and roamed the streets looking for Christians to beat up.

Meanwhile, TV footage posted on social networks showed army vehicles ploughing through the Christian protesters, killing several. Autopsies also showed some died of gunshot wounds. The information minister, Osama Heikal, explained the incident away by saying the TV presenters were swept by emotions. He later lavishly praised the coverage of the incident.

What made the violence and the state television coverage of it significant in post-Mubarak Egypt was the damage it did to Muslim-Christian relations and how it revealed the magnitude of the military's apparent indifference to the loss of human life and the threat to sectarian harmony.

But that was not all. At the suspected behest of the military, state television broadcast an interview with the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit immediately after he crossed from Gaza to Egypt this month as part of a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel.

After five years in captivity, he was gaunt, exhausted and, at times, looked like he was about to pass out.

The Egyptian journalist, Shahira Amin, appeared to strive to extract a statement from Mr Shalit that would cast Egypt's military rulers in a positive light. He was asked why mediation efforts to win his release failed while Egypt's succeeded.

After Israeli officials and commentators questioned the ethics of the interview, Ms Amin told the BBC she had not forced the interview on Mr Shalit and that it was important to let people see him.

But it has not just been the state media that the military has been meddling in.

Yosri Fouda, an Egyptian political talk show host, suspended his programme last Friday after what he said were efforts by the rulers to stifle free speech. His show, The Final Word, on a privately owned television station, was widely watched.

Mr Fouda, a former investigative reporter for the BBC and Al Jazeera, said online that he was protesting against "increasing efforts" to maintain the core of the regime.

"This is a cry from the heart," he said. "Egypt deserves better."