Hisham Kassem says, “State media has always served its master.” (Daily News Egypt Photo / Hassan Ibrahim).
CAIRO: After praising the “glorious revolution,” it didn’t take long for Egypt’s state media to return to being the mouthpiece of the new rulers.
"State media has always served its master. When Mubarak was ousted, they turned on him 180 degrees and started to search for a new master to serve," said Hisham Kassem, media expert and former publisher of the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
State media, Kassem said, is now serving the military rulers of the country and after elections it will serve whoever takes power. "If Satin was handed power, they will support him," he said.
Kassem said it will take a long time for state media to become independent, adding that it suffered a relapse.
"If the revolution has the loud voice, the editors and the staff will praise it and vice versa," Sabah Hamamou, deputy business editor at Al-Ahram, said.
But Naila Hamdy, journalism professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said official media outlets witnessed a lot of change after the revolution.
"More dissenting figures were allowed to appear on state TV, which became more dynamic," she said.
However she believes that this is not enough to say that state media is now objective in its news coverage.
"It is still the voice of the army and moves within the official line," she said.
A number of journalists employed in state media institutions confirmed that it has long been the mouthpiece of the regime.
"Directly after the revolution, our news coverage changed to the extreme opposite of what we were doing before, claiming to pay tribute to the revolution," Amal Roshdy, TV anchor at Nile News channel, said.
This did not last for a long time, she said, as a number of political events erupted.
"At the station they presented half the story, hid facts, ignored videos and the guests’ list for every program was revised by the information minister," she claimed. "But when protesters of Abbaseya Square appeared, managers seized the opportunity to balance the coverage and serve their interests."
Roshdy said that the government’s interference in their work is not as blatant as before.
There is no longer a list of figures banned from appearing on state TV, she said, but the whole episode can be changed or a topic can be canceled to prevent the guest from appearing.
Hamamou said that before the revolution there were red lines at Al-Ahram and some topics could not be addressed. "This has changed — the sources varied more and we cover a different range of topics, but unfortunately on a narrow scale."
The scourge of self-censorship
Such claims raise questions about the importance of the Ministry of Information, which was canceled for a few months after the revolution but reestablished in the following Cabinet reshuffle.
"We don’t really need the ministry in our transition to democracy. Regulations for Maspero can be outlined in a different way," Hamdy said.
On the other hand, Kassem believes that the information minister should be the one who restores order to state media at this point.
She said that while in some situations managers in state media do not have the freedom to choose what to do, in other instances they think that sticking to government rules will secure their positions.
"Those managers are programmed to act this way. For them to reach a good position, they have to flatter the government," Kassem said.
State media rebels
Over the past year, some state media employees publically criticized what they described as shameful coverage of loaded events.
"In Maspero, we formed the Free Media Practitioners’ Coalition. This is a group of workers who refuse dictation from any entity," Roshdy said.
She added that while some of them are chided by their superiors, no one has been harmed or dismissed.
If four TV anchors do their jobs efficiently at one of Maspero’s channels, she added, another four will probably be following the orders they receive to counter them. "That’s why the viewer feels that nothing has changed," she said.
"When it comes to the news bulletin, we cannot do anything about it, we have to read what we get," she added. "Sometimes they ignore a couple of items of current issues and focus on other irrelevant news."
As for print media, Hamamou said the reformists within are few compared to the sheer number of staff employed through nepotism.
"However, our voices were heard when we protested to change the former editor-in-chief, Osama Saraya, who was an icon of the toppled regime," she said.
Reforming state media
Media workers and experts demanding the reform of state media, say it will only happen gradually given the country’s circumstances.
Hamdy said state media should be restructured on the financial and administrative levels by an independent entity.
"There should be professional criteria for evaluation or promotion and avoiding favoritism in hiring," Hamamou said.
Meanwhile, she said, this cannot happen as long as the same staff is in place. "You cannot ask those who don’t have any professional criteria to suddenly acquire them," she said.
Hamdy agreed, saying that employees should be offered severance packages and asked to to leave. "But not all of them are hopeless; some can be retrained."
State media comprises around 43,000 to 49,000 employees, according to Kassem.
"Ninety percent of those workers are redundant labor," he said. "For Maspero to be economically feasible, this labor should be forced into early retirement. I believe it is better to close Maspero down."
There is no need for the government to own media outlets, he said.
As for provinces that suffer from a dearth of media outlets, Kassem said that the competition between private media will cover this shortage in the long run.
"Competition among private channels and newspapers … will lead to a better media atmosphere similar to that before the 1952 revolution," he said.
Hamamou thinks people are reluctant to believe in state media and do not feel that it belongs to them.
"The former regime tainted the reputation of state media … therefore people are not motivated to support its reform," Hamamou said.
Roshdy agreed, adding that if the country becomes more stable, it will allow for reform in state media.