The man tipped to become Egypt’s next president had a message for the media when the official election campaign began on May 3. “The role of the media in the current phase is a critical one,” former army chief and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told selected journalists. “They are capable of uniting Egyptians after the massive polarisation that took place in society.”
Since the army overthrew Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in a popularly-backed coup in July 2013, an ongoing crackdown has attempted to silence opposition voices amid a deeply polarised media.
In the days following Morsi’s overthrow, seven Islamist channels were closed, accused by the military-backed government of inciting violence, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Misr25 channel. In August, Al Jazeera Network’s Mubasher channel was declared illegal and banned from operating in Egypt.
When the state declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation” in December, its Freedom and Justice newspaper was banned.
The government has presented these media restrictions as part of a campaign against “terrorism”. According to a foreign ministry statement: “In the wake of the June 30 revolution, Egypt has found itself facing a vicious terrorist campaign aiming to destabilise the country and derail its democratic transition.” A foreign ministry source added: “We are merely trying to convey the truth on the ground in Egypt.”
Journalists who challenge this narrative, or offer a platform to those who do, face censorship, intimidation, arrest and violence.
According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a Cairo-based human rights organisation, seven journalists have been killed while working since June 30, 2013.
At least 17 more are currently imprisoned for their work, including Al Jazeera Arabic reporter Abdullah Elshamy who has been imprisoned without charge since August, and Al Jazeera English staff Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, detained since December on charges of spreading false news. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, these actions make Egypt the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists, after Syria and Iraq.
“The conclusion that we got from observing violations that happened in the last year is that there is a pattern of attacks by the state against journalists,” said AFTE researcher Sarah el-Masry. This affects what news is covered, she believes. “It has an impact on journalists, they don’t feel safe on the streets covering certain things.”
“It’s about not giving a platform to the opposition,” said photojournalist Amru Salahuddien. When he was last arrested, Salahuddien said he was accused of covering protests of a “terrorist organisation”. “I’ve never heard of a terrorist organisation that protests,” he said.
When two journalists were shot covering protests at Cairo University on April 14, the head of the Journalists Syndicate, Diaa Rashwan, responded by calling for a halt to journalists doing field work as a protest. Salahuddien said he and other syndicate members were disappointed by this reaction, having pushed for a stronger stance. “The position the syndicate is taking is considered very passive,” said el-Masry.
The Ministry of Interior responded by promising to provide army ballistics vests and helmets to the syndicate. Salahuddien argued however, that wearing a camouflage vest would compromise a journalist’s objectivity. “The only side they can cover from wearing this is the police or army line.”
Already, though, most private media has joined the state in presenting a unified front against Islamists and treating dissenting voices as a threat to state security.
“The bias is unbelievable,” said Ghaly Shafik, a popular liberal blogger who writes under the name The Big Pharaoh. “During Morsi there was a difference,” between state and private media he said, but “now all media is pro-Sisi and pro-government”.
Shafik, who has written on Egyptian politics and media since 2004, said he has never seen a more oppressive media environment. “Believe it or not, under [former president Hosni] Mubarak it was more free to criticise the government.”
“Now with the closure of the Islamists [and other opposition] channels there is only one narrative, that’s the official narrative,” said former state television presenter and CNN correspondent Shahira Amin. “It’s back to the propaganda, lionising the military, always demonising the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Censorship is commonplace in state media, according to Amin who was taken off air on Channel 2 two months ago. “I wouldn’t say ‘the glorious June 30 revolution’ and I said ‘mass uprising instead’.”
Now presenting “In the Hot Seat” on state-owned Nile TV, Amin’s show is screened before being broadcast. “I was specifically instructed by my boss at Nile TV not to interview anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood … and not to have any guests who are critical of the military,” she said.
Privately-owned channels have also silenced dissenting voices. Popular satirist Bassem Youssef, whose show “El Bernameg” (The Programme) is styled on American Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”, was taken off the air in April until after the presidential campaign. In his second to last episode Youssef highlighted the apparent hypocrisy of other television hosts such as Lamees Elhadidi, contrasting clips of their on-air statements while Morsi was in power with their current views.
According to a statement by the Saudi-owned MBC Misr satellite channel, Youssef’s show was cancelled “to avoid influencing the Egyptian voter’s opinion and public opinion”.
The people don't understand the current situation very well because there's only one voice they can hear.
Presenters who adhere to the narrative of the state fighting “terrorism” face no restraint on their broadcasts. Private satellite channel Sada el-Balad presenter Ahmed Moussa recently exhorted viewers to “kill the terrorists wherever they happen to be, inside or outside Egypt”.
Satirist Youssef and others have said coverage on private channels is not directly controlled by the state but is subject to self-censorship. “It’s being more royal than the king,” said Amin. “Everyone is trying to get in favour with the regime.”
Businessmen like Mohamed al-Amin, who owns CBC and had close ties to the Mubarak regime, or cement mogul Hassan Rateb, who owns Al-Mehwar TV, “need to have a good relationship with the state,” according to Shafik.
Many also felt threatened by the previous government. “They’re scared of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Shafik said. “They believe that Sisi came and saved them.”
In this climate, Sisi is widely predicted to win the presidential elections scheduled for May 26-27. A recent survey by Egyptian polling group Baseera put support for Sisi at 72 percent of those intending to vote. This is no surprise to CPJ Egypt consultant Shaimaa Abulkhair, who said: “The people don’t understand the current situation very well because there’s only one voice they can hear.”
So far, Sisi has not agreed to debate the only other candidate, Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, who polled at 2 percent. Instead, the two candidates have given long interviews on privately owned CBC and ONTV channels.
One arena in which dissenting views can still be regularly heard is online. Compared to the influence of television or the ubiquity of newspapers, the ability of online news and social media to reach Egyptians is limited, but its audience is growing.
Media watchdog Freedom House in its 2014 report states: “Some 44 percent of Egyptians accessed the internet regularly during 2012, and nearly 70 percent had access to mobile telephone.” It concluded that “social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, play a key role in spreading news and information”.
“Social media has been the only channel where different people tend to voice their opinion,” according to blogger Shafik. When it comes to freedom of expression online, he said: “The genie will never go back in the bottle.”