Over the past month, much controversy has been made by the Muslim Brotherhood’s horrendous propaganda promoted on their official Arabic and English language media outlets. They have, simply put, lied, about the events on the ground, falling behind the veil of democracy more often than Koshary spoons have hit the table. Many activists have cried foul over the coverage, lack of professionalism and misrepresenting the opposition or their own criminal activity – the violence perpetrated by Brotherhood ‘protesters’ in early December one of the main points of interest.
However, at the same time, this is not the Mubarak regime, which closed newspapers, removed issues from newsstands, silenced journalists forcefully and detained and imprisoned editors. The Brotherhood, over the past year has been largely open to allowing criticism and dissent. With a constitution fraught with threatening the very future of equality and freedom for Egyptians, this is a surprising move that has benefited the group, and President Mohammed Mursi, in pushing their “democratic” agenda.
Certainly there have been hiccups along the way since Mursi took power on June 30 from a military that did their best to silence any criticism of their actions for a year and a half, including the pre-trial detention of Al-Dostour editor Islam Afifi, who was subsequently ordered released by Mursi just hours after a court placed him in pre-trial detention.
Still, that case highlighted the growing concern from press freedom organizations and watchdogs on Egypt’s freedom of information and press, with Reporters Without Borders in August saying that they were concerned over the Shura Council’s appointment of new CEOs and editors in the state-run media in early August.
"Respect for the independence of the state-owned media is one of the fundamental guarantees of freedom of information in a country that aspires to be democratic," Reporters Without Borders reiterated in a statement on the matter.
It was not abnormal. State-run media has always been a mouthpiece of the ruling government in Egypt, and with the Brotherhood’s ascension into power, they took full advantage, placing their cronies in positions to direct editorial policy. This was no different from Mubarak or the military council which ruled Egypt from the end of the Mubarak regime until Mursi became president.
What separates the Brotherhood’s approach to media is their ability to not crackdown on dissenting voices – many will be critical of the four-month jail sentence handed down to El-Faraeen owner and presenter Tawfiq Okasha in October, but for anyone who spent time viewing the channel he promoted violence on numerous levels.
Numerous newspapers have opened and are publishing regularly. Censorship today in Egypt largely comes in the self-censoring policies of the individual editor and owners of the publication. For example, we are witnessing an increasing polarization of local media, where the left-leaning publications are vehemently anti-Brotherhood and refuse to write anything positive, whether in opinion or reporting. While the Brotherhood and their supporters are keen to almost daily bombard their readers with positive stories of the activities of Mursi, their “democratic” principles and an array of optimism on the direction the country is taking under the Brotherhood’s leadership.
The one aspect that the Brotherhood has followed in Mubarak’s footsteps, or at least the military, is the use of violence towards journalists doing their jobs. During the recent presidential palace clashes, at least one reporter was shot dead by Brotherhood protesters, others reported being beaten and tortured. These reports failed to see ink in pro-Brotherhood newspapers.
While the Brotherhood has maintained a pseudo hands off approach, they have also not intervened to protect the media. In December, supporters of firebrand ultra-conservative Hazem Abu Ismail surrounded Egypt’s Media City where they called for the closure of “liberal” channels. They reportedly assaulted a number of journalists as the Brotherhood and the government remained surprisingly silent on the events.
In many ways, Mursi and the Brotherhood have learned a strong lesson from the Mubarak regime and the military: hands off means plausible deniability. By allowing the media to continue its criticism of Mursi, attack the Brotherhood, they are attempting to show their base, and the foreign community, that they are the democratic future of the country and can be worked with. “Hey, we don’t crackdown on newspapers,” goes a long way in Washington.
At the same time the Brotherhood might be misleading readers through propaganda campaigns, it has had serious and violent repercussions. By denying the truth, as witnessed and reported by average citizens, the Brotherhood has opened a gaping wound in the country, one that is likely to continue into 2013.
The Egyptian media, while booming unlike other countries across the world, is again facing a test. Without truly independent media in the country, at least in Arabic, Egyptians are confronted with “news” that is biased and serves a political purpose. Can a country that hopes to continue their revolutionary spirit through democratic change honestly and truly achieve those lofty goals with almost every commentator and editor jockeying for more public fame? It is doubtful and newspapers in the country must look inward to see where their purpose for disseminating information to the public goes.
The Brotherhood has shown itself willing to deliver information that belies the truth, but at the same time, the opposition publications have been struggling to deliver honest and balanced reporting that allows Egyptians to choose what to believe and what to think. What the Brotherhood has done is replaced the Mubarak scheme of betting on the rich and wealthy to uphold his rule with the masses, and unfortunately, as we have seen, it will be those people who will suffer first in the new Egypt.
While the media is dramatically more open and freer since Mursi took power, 2012 has also witnessed the rise in the advocacy reporting that will not help create a more unified Egypt.
For 2013 to be a positive year for Egypt and its media apparatus, there must be a concerted effort to avoid public fighting in order to tell the story of Egypt and Egyptians, for Egyptians by Egyptians without the guise of a political bent.
(Joseph Mayton is Editor-in-chief of the Egypt-based Bikyamasr.com and contributes regularly to Al Arabiya English. Twitter @jmayton)