x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

End of Mubarak leaves question mark over Egypt's state-run media

Analysts say that once Egypt is a true democracy there will no room for its state-run television and newspapers and theur huge budgets, but some employees say they can be reformed.

Anti-government protesters shout slogans outside the state television building in Cairo last week.
Anti-government protesters shout slogans outside the state television building in Cairo last week.

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CAIRO // He was one of many employees in Egypt's vast state-run media complex who seemed to straddle both sides during the 18 days of protests that toppled the country's president, Hosni Mubarak.

When not tinkering with news clips and montages for Egyptian Television that portrayed anti-government demonstrators as agents of Israel and Iran, the 27-year-old editor, who asked that his name be withheld because he feared losing his job, was in Tahrir Square protesting with them.

At work he obeyed orders from government officials to downplay coverage of the demonstrations as well as censor the swelling national criticism of Egypt's leaders.

Yet, on January 28, he spent his day off facing down riot police on Cairo's Qasr al Nil Bridge alongside protesters during their "day of rage" against the government.

Afterwards, he returned to his job. "Many of us at Egyptian TV went to the protests. We wanted our freedom," the editor said.

He said he kept working because of his modest monthly salary of 2,000 pounds (Dh1,249), even though that meant working for an institution that many Egyptians revile as a propaganda machine bent on destroying a legitimate democratic uprising.

"When I went to work, of course I didn't tell my bosses I had been at the protests," he said. "Because of Mubarak's system, if they found out you were protesting or even at Tahrir, they'd fire you."

As the rest of the country's institutions begin the process of reform, media analysts and journalists are calling for equally sweeping changes to state-run media.

Some are contemplating its dismantling altogether.

Naila Hamdy, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, said: "I doubt there will be a role for state media in a democracy."

Despite a decade of gradual reforms that allowed more coverage critical of authorities and the beginnings of a flourishing private media industry, the protests served as a warning of how state media outlets could return to their old ways during times of crisis, she said. These included refusing to broadcast coverage of protesters taking control of Tahrir Square and reporting rumours as facts, such as pinpointing foreign agents as stirring subversive sentiment and demonstrators offering free handouts of Kentucky Fried Chicken to attract more people to the protests.

"It was like the country reverted back to 1967," Ms Hamdy said, referring to the government propaganda that convinced many Egyptians they had won, when they had actually lost the war with Israel that year.

"It was really shocking to think that anyone would really do something like this."

Perhaps, she added, the institution could be turned into a broadcast operation along the lines of the BBC.

Some journalists and television presenters did resign their state-media positions in protest over government pressure to not report accurately on the demonstrations.

Shahira Amin, a state TV anchor, submitted her resignation after the news organisation failed to report on the violent scenes of pro-Mubarak mobs tossing Molotov cocktails at the demonstrators. Mahmoud Saad, a popular talk-show presenter, also quit.

Soon after he resigned, he was paraded around on the shoulders of demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

Mr Saad has since been rehired, and newspapers such as the state-owned Al Ahram and Egyptian television have significantly altered their reporting to more accurately reflect the realities on the ground.

Yet, it seemed until the last remaining moments of Mr Mubarak's presidency, state media was accused of propagating distorted media reports that favoured the government.

Wael Ghonim, who became a hero of the uprising after his 12-day detainment by Egyptian security, became the apparent target of state television last Thursday.

The 30-year-old Google executive tweeted "Mission Accomplished" following rumours that the president would step down that night. But after Mr Mubarak refused to do so in a speech later that evening, state television reported that Mr Ghonim told demonstrators to leave the square since their demands had been met. He was subsequently criticised, harshly, in the blogosphere and by fellow activists over his distorted remarks.

To avoid a public backlash against employees of state media, Hisham Kassem, the former publisher of Al Masry Al Youm, an independent Egyptian newspaper, called for a truth and reconciliation commission.

"I will need to hear an apology from those who called the protesters - who called me - an American agent. I just want to hear, 'I was wrong'," he said.

Yet a backlash may be inevitable, he suggested. During Mr Mubarak's rule, the government never revealed the budgets of the country's eight state-owned publishing houses and state television. Employing tens of thousands of people, they are all suspected to be highly unprofitable entities that consume a combined "billions of pounds" a year.

Mr Kashem said ordinary Egyptians may be angered to discover that the government "spends more on its media than it does on education or health care".

Already, he said, "the switch in editorial content is really signalling the collapse, not a change, but a total collapse of the state media. It's like a bomb went off in our building and it's the second before that building collapses".

The 27-year-old Egyptian Television editor hopes to avoid that collapse. Instead, he and a growing number of employees in the state media industry have begun campaigning for higher wages and a recalibration of contracts currently tilted in their employers' favour.

Whether the government can afford to do this remains a serious question. But the editor is optimistic. "Insha'allah, if we are treated better, we could become the best television in the Middle East," he said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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