x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Egypt's state media bows to army's will

Within hours of General Abdel Fattah El Sisi broadcasting the announcement that Mr Morsi had been removed and the constitution suspended, authorities shut down four private television stations controlled by Islamists.

CAIRO // "The army and people, one hand!" That was the rallying cry of the jubilant masses of Egyptians in Tahrir Square on the night Hosni Mubarak fell, and again last Wednesday when the army overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi.

It resonates loud and clear in a state media that has quickly gone "on message", as it had been for the 16 tumultuous months of military rule that followed the 2011 uprising.

The presence of Republican Guards in the studios of state broadcasting headquarters on Wednesday, the day the army staged its takeover, was an early sign that state media would reprise its traditional role as the loyal servants of a military-backed administration.

Troops remain in the building four days later.

Within hours of General Abdel Fattah El Sisi broadcasting the announcement that Mr Morsi had been removed and the constitution suspended, authorities shut down four private television stations controlled by Islamists.

These included the Muslim Brotherhood-owned Egypt 25.

Security forces arrested several dozen employees of the stations. Among those raided was Qatar-based Al Jazeera's Egyptian news channel, which military sources accused of broadcasting "incitement". It remained on air.

Even before the takeover, Nile TV, one of two state channels, had started to broadcast video montages of triumphant soldiers performing their duties to the strains of patriotic music.

Soldiers rappelling from helicopters. Troops in full regalia marching on parade. Eager young recruits listening to Gen El Sisi. Military vehicles barrelling across desert terrain.

Those images were layered with others invoking national pride: the pyramids, Egypt's "victory" in crossing the Suez Canal in the 1973 war with Israel, and flag-waving masses thronging Tahrir Square during the uprising against Mubarak.

The day after Mr Morsi's removal, Nile TV and state radio hosted studio guests who condemnedthe Brotherhood as "enemies of the people" and cast Islamist supporters of the president as instigators of violence.

Although journalists from a state-run television station and a state-run newspaper said they had not yet received direct orders from the military since it removed Mr Morsi, activists said such a move would be consistent with the army's policies towards the media under previous governments.

"The military has always tightly controlled state-media coverage of anything related to them, whether positive or negative," said Heba Morayef, the Egypt director at Human Rights Watch. "A return to that is not too difficult."

Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood made campaign promises to reform laws and practices governing state media.

But rights activists and journalists said the toppled leader tried to use government-owned channels and papers to his own advantage as his predecessors had done - only less successfully.

As the political winds turned against Mr Morsi, the facade of loyalty among the state newspapers began to crack.

Al Akhbar, one of the biggest, accused the Brotherhood of meddling and incompetence in a front-page editorial by the editor-in-chief the week before the mass anti-Morsi protests that gave popular support to the army's action.

A journalist at Al Ahram said that phone calls from the military and the security services regarding news coverage had been the norm before Mubarak's fall.

"This time, they don't need to," the journalist said, citing the huge level of popular support for the military's toppling of Mr Morsi.

Since the Islamist channels were silenced, coverage of protests by Mr Morsi's supporters against his removal has been scarce on state television and at times completely absent on the private satellite channels that fiercely opposed the Brotherhood.

Al Jazeera's Egyptian station, Mubasher Misr, has faced obstruction from officials and activists who accused it of bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We have always tried to cover different events happening around the country, and our split-screen coverage shows this," said Karim El Assiuti a journalist at the station.

"Unfortunately, the Egyptian media is only presenting one picture of what's happening now," said Abdel Aziz Mujaahed, one of 29 Mubasher Misr staff members, including the station's general manager, who were arrested on Wednesday. "It's the picture of those who want the military government."

A prosecutor ordered their release on Friday but they were told the case against them was ongoing, Mr Mujaahed said, although they have not been formally charged.

Gehad El Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, described Egyptian journalists as "fiction writers". He said Egyptian media were not reporting a crackdown that had killed dozens of people since the takeover.

"The state is taking a side, the army is taking a side, national television is taking a side. Does anyone see how crazy this is?" he said.

The Brotherhood's political arm said the state-owned printing press had refused to print its newspaper - Freedom and Justice - for two days after Mr Morsi's removal, but it was back on some newsstands on Saturday.

A military source admitted restricting publication because the paper had planned to publish an article that he said was untrue, alleging that the army was split and a major unit remained loyal to Mr Morsi.

The tone of the state media since the army takeover seems to mirror the opinion of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets last weekend to demand that Mr Morsi leave office.

"Under the Brotherhood, people didn't watch state television," said Ahmed Sherif, 59, who works for a tourism company. "Now it has come back to the people. Since the June 30 revolution, it is reflecting the reality of the Egyptian street."

"State TV reflected politics that did not match those of the people," agreed Mohamed Said, 48, a barber, sitting outside his shop reading Al Ahram.