Cairo, Egypt - When Egypt's army stated that a media "code of ethics" would be part of its roadmap to elections following the removal of democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi, the announcement reflected nationwide concern that local media bias has deepened political polarisation in the Arab world's most populous country.
Shortly after the army deposed Morsi, soldiers shut down five local independent television channels that were considered pro-Morsi and were accused by the military of inciting violence. The move triggered conflicting responses between Morsi supporters and the opposition, but bolstered the widespread sentiment that the country's more than 200 TV channels and dozens of newspapers and radio stations had lost their sense of objectivity along the way.
In his July 3 statement announcing Morsi's ouster, head of Defense General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said the roadmap would include a plan to improve Egypt's media that would "establish values and ethics for the media to follow".
According to Arab media analyst Courtney C Radsch, any media code of ethics "needs to be based on self-regulation not statutory regulation".
"For example," she said, "media or press councils or ombudsmen can deal with the complaints against the press, but this should be an independent industry or industry-public body, not a statutory one."
The domestic media landscape has been under fire for years, with critics saying it lacks objectivity and is increasingly partisan. Experts say it was a major contributor to - as well as a victim of - political turmoil that divided the nation into camps against and for the Morsi administration.
"Media in Egypt have tended to reflect the interests of their owners, and thus perhaps it is not surprising that as the political situation has become more polarised, so too has media coverage," Radsch said.
Following the 2011 revolution, which ended former president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, the number of television channels surged as the media enjoyed a growing margin of editorial freedom. Several businessmen kicked off new projects, fronted by celebrity hosts who competed through overlapping daily talk shows. Objectivity was abandoned by most of them in their rush to analyse rapid political developments and respond to information-hungry audiences.
"We do not have such a thing as professional media," Ayman Al-Sayyad, a journalsist and former member of Morsi's advisory board, told Al Jazeera. "Seventy percent of our media outlets lack objectivity," he added.
Al-Sayyad said these channels have become "vessels" for political powers. "At times of instability, like the ones we've been living now for years, media becomes no more than a tool in the hands of the powers it resembles, and its role becomes political rather than informative," he said.
Morsi and his critics
During Morsi's one-year rule, privately-owned liberal channels - including ONtv, CBC, and Dream TV - were platforms for almost daily fierce criticism of the presidency. Morsi's sympathisers saw their coverage as biased, and believe it only added to the many challenges he faced. They say such outlets fomented nationwide discontent towards Morsi's government through spreading false rumors, including claims the government intended to rent the country's antiquities to foreign firms and sell its waterway, the Suez Canal.
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Following El-Sisi's televised statement ousting Morsi, liberal channels blatantly celebrated the announcement with national songs played to footage of the millions who had stormed the streets demanding early elections. In a show on El-Yawm, which is a part of privately-owned Orbit Communications Company, host Amr Edib was near tears as he waved a large Egyptian flag and chanted "Allah is the Greatest! Good riddance!"
Meanwhile, on pro-Morsi TV channels, some hosts who catered to passionate supporters of the ousted president have been accused of resorting to sectarianism and hate speech, with broadcasts allegedly targeting the Christian minority, and Shia Muslims. Human Rights Watch says the broadcasts spurred several attacks against both groups, including the lynching of four Shia in June and reoccurring assaults against Egypt's Christian Coptic community.
Following the killing on July 8 of more than 50 Morsi supporters staging a sit-in at the Republican Guard's headquarters, in what is so far the deadliest violence since his ouster, pro-Morsi Facebook pages and Twitter accounts published archived images of Syrians killed in a two-year civil war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces, claiming they were images of Egyptians killed by the army in an attempt to gain public sympathy.
"A code of ethics is essential now, more than ever, because inciting and polarising has gotten worse than ever," Albert Chafiq, chief executive officer of the liberal broadcast station ONtv, told Al Jazeera. "Breaching is committed from both sides, but the damage caused by those committed by Islamist channels had the deeper effects on the Egyptian society."
Al Jazeera and its affiliates have also been involved in the dispute. Journalists working for the Qatar-owned network in Egypt have also come under intense scrutiny, skewered by Morsi critics who say the network is backing the Muslim Brotherhood.
More than 22 of the network's staff working in Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which is dedicated to Egypt's affairs, resigned following the shooting of pro-Morsi protesters, citing the channel's biased coverage of events.
Al Jazeera Arabic made a public annoucnement on its website on July 23, criticising the Egyptian authorities pressuring their staff, and denying allegations of bias.
The code in action?
Al-Sayyad said he believes the proposed code of ethics "would impose much-needed moral pressure" on the media. "It won't be mandatory, or penalty-imposing since our penal code includes all that," he said, explaining that misconduct such as defamation, jeopardising national security and spreading false reports are already criminalised. However, Al-Sayyad said such a code "won't be enough unless the political arena stabilises. Only then will proper conduct of media will be reached."
Adel Iskandar, a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University, agreed with the urgency of such a code. In a post on the Committee to Protect Journalists' website on July 12, he said that "the most urgent need now is for a professional journalistic code of ethics drafted by independent civilian organisations…without military involvement, intrusion, or oversight."
Iskandar said that if such a code is implemented, along with clauses built into the constitution to protect journalists, "Egypt's media could be looking forward to better days ahead. Anything less than that promises further aggravation of already volatile media environment."
The code will be put together by a group of civilian organisations, confirmed Chafiq, naming the Journalists' Syndicate and the National Coalition for the Freedom of Media among the contributors.
Meanwhile, asked if an army-backed code may limit Egyptian media's ability to criticise the army, Radsche said "Absolutely. An independent, free media must be based on self-regulation and thus a military-led code of ethics would undoubtedly impinge on the media's ability to cover the military."
"The military is already a red line, with minimal investigation into its finances, ownership interests, benefits, etc., and there have been cases of independent journalists, including bloggers, who have faced criminal charges for attempting to investigate the military's interests, much less criticising its leadership or other aspects."