By Mohamed Selim
If I had my druthers, the first thing I would have done on the evening of 11 February 2011, would be to restructure and regulate Egypt’s media. Its current state of discord, lawlessness and entropy is tantamount to the country’s evolving political system: mobocracy.
As Egypt’s former chief spy, the late Omar Suleiman, pronounced that former president Hosni Mubarak would abdicate his tightly-held position after 30 years, many Egyptians yearning for democracy and freedom envisioned a new birth of a nation. Soon after, however, the nation was dragged down by the selfish ulterior motives of all its competing forces, whether the military brass, the disparate religious factions and the secular combative camps. The discussion of constitutional drafts, the infamous emergency law, parliamentary idiosyncrasies and many other peculiarities, were featured on every page of seemingly endless periodicals, while airtime on public and private radio and TV channels hosted a cacophony of ultracrepidarians whose polarised views and tailored analyses inflamed an already incendiary Egypt.
For three long years, Egyptians spent their hot summer nights and cold, long winter evenings, glued to their TV screens, amused by the latest unconfirmed reports, such as a story spun about Mubarak’s wealth. Every administration that ruled Egypt in the past three years has managed to keep the state of the media unchanged so as to solidify its grip on Egypt and admonish any rising competitors. The media scene is in dire need of legal and professional oversight embodied in a neutral entity that acts as a chaperone of responsible freedom, discouraging the tarnishing of reputations for cheap political gain. Unsubstantiated reports about the United States’ president’s ties to the ruling-party-come-terrorist-group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its far-reaching influence on western media outlets, have been flooding the newspapers and airways. Other campaigns have attempted to boost nationalistic fervor by using xenophobic innuendos to defame all who are not conforming to the official rhetoric line and deeming every different opinion as serving the enemy’s agendas.
Six months after Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt’s Goebbelsian Ministry of Information, established in 1953 as the Ministry of National Guidance, was scrapped, and reports speculated that under Egypt’s interim government, headed by Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, a restructuring of the chaotic media landscape intended to uproot the subservient practices of the Mubarak era was underway, launching the country towards a new era of journalism that would be conducive to development and modernisation. Alas, the ministry was reestablished, and, after three bloody years, the state of Egyptian media is unaltered. The media has created frictions that will take years to heal.
That bloated bureaucratic edifice by the Nile in Cairo, also known as Maspero, the headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and Television, which hosts the infamous Ministry of Information, is still the embodiment of Egypt’s weakness for appeasing whomever the military/establishment chooses to govern Egypt. The people’s right to be informed, educated, and entertained sans political or religious bias is being sidestepped. That won’t change until Egypt’s media is restructured and regulated in accordance with Article 72 of Egypt’s newly ratified constitution. Thus, the following steps, in my humble opinion, urgently need to be taken if Egypt’s regime wants to save face and return the country to the path of democracy.
First, the country needs to scrap Egypt’s Ministry of Information. Its bloated mandate ought to be handed to an independent commission headed by non-partisan figures that represent all factions of the society.
Second, all laws that punish journalists, whether local, foreign, independent, bloggers and/or others, must be halted. Hollow slogans such as “threatening national security” and nomenclatures such as “terrorist organisations, cells and groups” must not be parroted by the media based on directives from the ruling regime. Accountability to public-opinion, questioning the official narrative and holding its authenticity to test, is a basic principle of good governance. All reporters, in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, must be guaranteed access to inform the public without any hindrances, obstacles nor character assassinations that transform them to enemies of the state.
Third, the line between news and views must be clearly distinguished in Egypt’s newspapers and on its chaotic airways, where anchors, analysts and the like are unhindered by neither law nor professionalism in spewing venom in the form of unsubstantiated reports, unconfirmed stories, gossips and hearsays. They attempt to glorify the leader (whoever he is) and vilify as enemies people who are denied both a fair trial and an equal slot to counter the charges against them. This McCarthyism doesn’t befit a country which sprung to follow the Arab Spring’s cradle, Tunisia, in the pursuit of freedom, dignity and justice. And as Tunisia has prescribed what ought to be done in democratic transitions, Egypt, on the contrary, has taught the world what should never be pursued.
Fourth, the law must be enacted in all matters green. The media outlets are clearly ambiguous in their financial resources. Partisan, independent, official and private media are expected to clear the smoke surrounding their financiers and their balance sheets, while abiding by the law and the public’s right to know. Transparency should be demanded from the media before journalists can expect it from the ones they cover. Doing so will pave the way towards more professional journalistic practices.
The aforementioned conditions and others are conducive to a freer and more democratic media landscape, which if guaranteed, would decrease the country’s polarisation. Egyptian journalists need to remember the long forgotten ABC’s: accuracy, brevity and clarity.
Mohamed Selim Khalil is a media scholar with a research emphasis on Political
Communication in the Arab World, University of Osnabrück, Germany. Twitter @moselim