Everyone knows that a free, independent system of information gathering, exchange, dissemination, analysis and debate is the lifeline of any democratic country. It is the only way citizens can consider, evaluate and make decisions on important issues. In the first year after the revolution, the Egyptian media has been under unprecedented pressure to do just that – with television being the most important because of its wide reach among a population with high illiteracy rates.
The criticism has focused on the media’s failures – even though it has had a mixed record. Beginning with the “live” broadcast, by state television, of tranquil Nile scenes while the uprising raged in the same location in January, and not ending with a state television anchor inciting Muslims to aid the army in oppressing Coptic protesters in October or inadequate coverage of the Port Said football massacre last month, there is hardly any question about the disastrous performance of the media. Yet it may be worth looking at the larger picture nonetheless, pointing up the dramatic changes, the positive highlights and the moments of courage by media workers who attempted to raise serious questions at times when citizens were in the greatest need for it. In that context, it is worth while to examine the role the media have played in a country beset by problems that militate against its performance as an emergent democracy. For, whether or not we admit it, the transition has not been smooth.
First, it must be asked whether the media is made up of guardians of the public sphere, suppliers of entertainment or mouthpieces of power? Handicapped by draconian laws, state ownership of many outlets and the threat of pressure or force, the media cannot perform the role of the watchdog in practise – a fact further compuonded by commercial interests, which can have an adverse effect on serious reporting with the market entrenched in the sensational and the superficial. To top it all off, the Egyptian media is emerging from a string of open partial alliances that have made it the proxy in the battle between political forces – revolutionaries vs. the public, liberals vs. conservatives etc. – resulting in a divisive as opposed to a harmonising role.
To have a properly functioning media that plays a healthy role in our future, several issues must be addressed: protection for journalists is one of them; journalists cannot be expected to provide objective and informed commentary if they are not free of potential intimidation. Secondly, the level of professional skill and the media bodies’ sense of accountability to the public must be raised, for in the absence of the right environment the newly empowered Egyptian media may not be able to continue its current evolution.
For despite all, the Egyptian media has changed, evolving enough to contribute to the development of a fledgling democracy. Egyptian media personalities have themselves used the metaphor of “breaking the barrier of fear” abundantly since the onset of the revolution; I would emphasise that this has created a fundamental shift in the behaviour of the media which no longer fears the government and has for the most part ignored military interference. The culture of self-censorship appears to be eroding and boldness is now the name of the game. This has brought about some remarkable moments such as the strong stand taken by independent newspapers in solidarity with the young activists during the early days of the revolution despite the risk, or ONTV’s Reem Maguid’s unforgettable hosting of Egypt’s first live political debate between a prime minister and the opposition resulting in the resignation of the former. But it has also resulted in many blunders – blatant instances of journalism falling of the accepted norms of objectivity. Without turning into a media apologist, it is possible to see how the notion that the Egyptian media has been misleading us is in itself another deception.