Polarised media fuels conflict in Egypt

Unfounded reports of “Sexual Jihad”, drones and poor hygiene contribute to a political climate of demonisation.

Cairo, Egypt – In the weeks preceding the breakup of the Rabaa Adaweya sit-in, the square became host to a strange assortment of social ails, according to reports in Egypt’s increasingly polarised media. State news anchors reported an outbreak of scabies due to the camp’s lack of hygiene, the “sexual jihad,” a supposed fatwa that permits un-married, usually nonconsensual sex, to support waging jihad, and a suspicious “foreign drone” hovering over the protest.

The scabies outbreak never happened. The “Sexual Jihad” in question turned out to be a rumor spurred by errant question on a Muslim Brotherhood Facebook page. And the drone turned out to be an airborne consumer camera used to take overhead pictures of the rally.

These accusations and others are indicative of a strong binary that has been unfolding on social media, private outlets, and the nation’s state owned radio stations, television channels, and newspapers since nationwide protests erupted on June 30.

State of the media

Starting shortly before former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, state run media began to rename the ruling political elite. Former politicians quickly became “terrorists” as public channels began to undergo a campaign to publicly rebrand the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, as an enemy of the state.

As Egyptian media quickly branded them “terrorists”, the Muslim Brotherhood began to participate in its own narrative creation. Reverting to its status of half a century of repression under successive rulers, through social media and spokespeople, the former ruling party deemed itself a group of victims, supporting a democratically elected president and opposing an illegal military coup.

Since a government crackdown on the pro-Morsi protests began on Wednesday, igniting violent clashes around the country leaving more than 600 people dead, state television has provided little coverage of the accusations levied against police officers from western media and human rights groups.

According to HA Hellyer, a Cairo based analyst at the Brookings Institute, “Egyptian media hasn’t been covering it [the crackdown] much except for calling it a ‘terrorist sweep.'” The product of this lopsided narrative, Hellyer said, is that “no calls have been made for accountability or an investigation [into the shootings] because of the media coverage.”

Ahmed Tourk, an employee of a state owned health channel, described the political climate within the state television headquarters as highly politically charged in favor of the current regime. “Most of the state media people are totally against Rabaa,” he said of the pro-Morsi protests.

According to Tourk, state broadcasters are forced to stick to a clear narrative due to an internal anti-Morsi bias among some reporters and pressure from government officials. “Some producers feel bad about what happened at Rabaa, but because of the channel, they only broadcast one opinion,” he said.

‘Everyone is confused’

The Muslim Brotherhood has also consistently reported news disproven or unverified by independent media outlets and human rights groups. Pro-brotherhood media erroneously claimed that nerve gas was used during the Rabaa demonstration break-up, and an official death toll of over 2,000 casualties among pro-Morsi protestors.

State media and private media cooperate and show only what the regime wants you to see

by Ahmed Salam, juice bar owner

Both public and state media have been accused of provoking public violence. On Friday, state television announced a statement from Tamarod, the activist group who orchestrated the June 30 protests, calling on: “People [to] form popular committees to protect worship places, public, and private institutions.”

A recent post on the Freedom and Justice Party’s Helwan branch’s Facebook page heavily implicated the Coptic pope and church in supporting recent state violence against Morsi supporters. “The Pope of the Church was the first to respond to al-Sisi’s call to authorise the killing of Muslims and the outcome of the authorisation was more than 500 dead today,” the Brotherhood post said. “After all this people ask why they burn the churches.” The Muslim Brotherhood denied responsibility for recent attacks on churches. 

Many Egyptians, like Ahmed Abdullah, an employee at a garage in downtown Cairo, turn to state media as a credible and truthful news source. “Private and state media have the same credibility because they report the same thing,” he said.

Mohamed Said, a supporter of General Sisi and his crackdown, only watches state television, because “they are always in the heart of everything”. 

“If anything is said of the Muslim Brotherhood, I believe it right away,” Said added.

Other Egyptians, both pro and anti Morsi, are sceptical of recent television coverage. “National media is like a hooker,” said Maher Elazhary, a hotel manager in downtown Cairo, “it goes with any regime”.

Some Egyptians choose to receive their information from social media and through the street, eschewing official media entirely. “State media and private media cooperate and show only what the regime wants you to see,” said Ahmed Salam, a juice bar owner in the Cairo area of Maadi.

As Egyptians struggle to make sense of the violence currently erupting throughout the nation, media output from both state and public institutions often steamrolls moderate opinions, forcing people to latch onto hastily investigated reports. “Any voices of balance or nuance are being pushed out. Not by force, but completely voluntarily,” Hellyer said. 

A working journalist, Ahmed Tourk worries the media is not doing its job of informing the public. “Everyone I know is confused now,” he said. “People don’t know what to think and turn to anything to make sense of what is happening.”

Source: Al Jazeera