x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Egypt blames media for plot to topple Morsi

Islamist-run media outlets and Muslim Brotherhood government officials allege that secularist media moguls are plotting to remove the country's first democratically elected president. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

Egyptian information minister Saleh Abdel Maqsoud says some privately-owned media are conspiring to rally protesters to topple the president.
Egyptian information minister Saleh Abdel Maqsoud says some privately-owned media are conspiring to rally protesters to topple the president.

CAIRO // As Egypt lurches from crisis to crisis, the country's media is proving unable to help find a way forward.

Far from serving as forum for discussing differences and proposing solutions, analysts and officials said, the media has become a weapon in the war over Egypt's future, diminishing the possibility of reaching any political accommodation.

Conspiracy-mongering about the media's role is rampant.

Islamist-run newspapers and broadcasters, along with Muslim Brotherhood government officials, allege that secularist media moguls have put in motion a plot to topple the country's first democratically elected president.

Meanwhile, privately owned media organisations controlled by more secular Egyptians intimate that the Brotherhood is secretly infiltrating all branches of the state in a bid to force conservative values on Egypt's 84 million people.

Amid this fierce media battleground stands Egypt's powerful Ministry of Information and its newly appointed head, Saleh Abdel Maqsoud.

In an interview with The National on Monday, the veteran Muslim Brotherhood journalist insisted that he had transformed the ministry's small empire of state-run television channels and radio stations from being a mouthpiece for the president into an honest broker and non-partisan "voice of the people".

Yet Mr Maqsoud, too, said there is a sinister, media-driven plot to topple President Mohammed Morsi from power.

"Of course there is a conspiracy," he said in his office at the Maspero building on the Nile in downtown Cairo. "All you have to do is turn on the television and watch some of the private channels. They call a few dozen protesters a 'demonstration'. They call for toppling the regime."

"Some powers don't want to use the democratic tools, the ballot box," he said. "They want to use violence and rally protesters."

Mr Abdel Maqsoud, however, denied that he has ordered the ministry's broadcast outlets to flack for the president. After taking office last year, he replaced many executives who served during the Mubarak era and told staff that they should include all perspectives in their coverage. He also removed a rule preventing women who wear a headscarf from appearing as presenters and focused on reducing expenditures to tackle more than 20 billion Egyptian pounds (Dh10.8bn) of debt held by the state media.

Mr Abdel Maqsoud pointed to an interview on Monday with Osama Kamel, the minister of petroleum, as an example of critical coverage. On a programme, Mr Kamel apologised to the Egyptian people for diesel shortages and announced the replacement of the head of a state-run oil company.

The main rule for his presenters and journalists was to accept the president as a legitimately elected leader and not call for his resignation.

"But we interview people who say the president should resign," he said. "We don't censor. All views are welcome."

Media analysts said that Mr Abdel Maqsoud's characterisation of state-media as a free-and-fair and honest broker in Egypt's toxic public debate was false.

His claim "is simply laughable and can be refuted with 15 minutes of exposure to a newscast or commentary show", said Adel Iskandar, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Washington and an expert on Arab media. "For the most part, the news and political component of state media remains predominantly government public relations as it has always been … In three years, the institution basically switched bosses from Mubarak to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the Brotherhood."

Yet, he and other analysts said partisanship and unsubstantiated reporting had become commonplace in Egypt from pro-government and opposition media.

For decades, the red lines for journalists were clear. Criticising Mubarak's policies was permissible in Egypt before the 2011 uprising that ended his reign, but few dared to directly condemn the president. After the uprising, the rules all but vanished, leaving a host of divisive commentators from across the political spectrum to regularly accuse their rivals of secret plots.

"Every night, a talk show from either side of the political battle fuels the polarisation," said Mohammed El Nawawy, an associate professor at Queens University in the US state of North Carolina who monitors Egyptian media. "The nobility in the Egyptian media has disappeared. No one knows what to trust because it feels like everyone has an agenda, including Islamist shows, secular shows and the state media."

When protesters attacked the presidential palace in December, several Islamist talk show hosts alleged that condoms and birth control pills were found in the tents of the protesters, casting them as sinners in a bid to undermine their cause.

In the weeks afterwards, secularist private media ran a series of unsubstantiated reports about Mr Morsi receiving a secret visit from Qassem Suleimani, Iran's spy chief, to get advice on creating a parallel security and intelligence apparatus within the government. The president's advisers denied the claim, but several newspapers continued their coverage.

"The blame for the polarisation should be laid squarely on both sides," said Stephanie Thomas, the associate director of the Kamal Adham Centre for Television and Digital Journalism arty the American University in Cairo. "It's a free-for-all after the revolution. Freedom of expression is important, but there also has to be ethical journalistic codes."

One problem, she said, was that Egypt had no independent regulator for the media. Such an institution could create a legal framework for the media and establish a code of conduct, but the dissolution of the parliament last summer has put new laws on hold.

The challenges faced in Egyptian media were highlighted at a conference hosted by the AUC last month. US Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, told the audience that "no issue is more important in Egypt right now since only through a free media can issues in a democracy be surfaced and resolved".

She criticised both government officials, who have filed scores of defamation lawsuits over critical remarks made in the media, and journalists who spread "conspiracy theories".

"Those who find themselves in the public eye are well advised on acquiring thicker skins instead of wasting time and resources suing their detractors," she said, according to a video of the event. She added later: "Egyptian journalism must transform itself if it is continued to be relevant. Journalists cannot call on demonstrators to engage in violent acts that serve to undermine their economy or simply lie to the public to promote their own agenda."

bhope@thenational.ae

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