Polarised, politicised and biased: Covering Egypt

Sarah El Masry
16 Min Read

On 13 August, security forces carried out operations at Al-Nahda Square and near Rabaa Al Adaweya Mosque to disperse sit-ins in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, leading to over 800 deaths from the sit-ins and over 1300 deaths in total all over Egypt as a result of violent attacks on police stations, churches, Coptic-owned shops and houses and street violence. The media coverage of the dispersal, as well as the narrative of the events leading up to it, has varied among different outlets, with many seemingly supporting a party in the conflict.

One post that has gone viral on social network websites juxtaposes the coverage of sit-in dispersal by two major channels; it describes how on Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr (owned by the state of Qatar) viewers saw security forces brutally shooting at the brotherhood members and supporters; while on Al-Arabiya (owned by Saudi Arabia) one saw the same security forces helping out protesters. The post reflects the state of polarisation in the media, both local and international, is covering the Egyptian crisis. It also points to how the framing of the current events in Egypt is politically charged by the position of media outlet owners.

The scene on TV

Polarisation is not a new phenomenon to the Egyptian media scene, and has been widely growing after the January 25th Revolution. However, at some point under Morsi, media narratives began to polarise around the two sides of political conflict in Egypt; the Islamist and the opposition.

The media coverage of the Rabaa dispersal, as well as the narrative of the events leading up to it, have varied among different outlets, with many seemingly supporting a party in the conflict.  Mohamed Gamil/DNE
The media coverage of the Rabaa dispersal, as well as the narrative of the events leading up to it, have varied among different outlets, with many seemingly supporting a party in the conflict.
Mohamed Gamil/DNE

The majority of TV channels, both private and state-owned, belonged to these two camps; religious channels backed Islamists, and secular channels represented the opposition. There were some individual anchors and presenters who mostly remained impartial and less biased, but the sweeping majority mirrored the ubiquitous polarisation on the street.

Both camps have been accused of creating conspiracy theories, spread rumours and exchanged real and false accusations. Islamist channels, particularly Al-Nas and Al-Hafez, often exploited sectarian rhetoric against Egyptian Copts, claiming that they constituted the majority of protesters against president Morsi. Meanwhile, Morsi’s government blamed the media for its failures; during the gas crisis in June Bassem Ouda, former supply minister, blamed the media in a statement for spreading inaccurate information about the shortage of gas which led people to line up for hours to fuel their vehicles. On the other hand, the secular media accused the government of cracking down on freedom of expression.

The day the military ousted Morsi, several Islamist channels such as Al-Nas, Al-Hafez and Misr 25 (owned by the Muslim Brotherhood) were shut down by the interim government. Security officials also raided the offices of Al Jazeera Mubasher a day after the ouster.

Although the closure of these channels was slammed by local and international human rights organisations, the government justified it as a means to “prevent perpetuating violence and spreading hatred in the country” according to armed forced spokesman Ahmed Ali. Today very few channels, mostly non-Egyptian, still represent the interests of the Brotherhood.

Rasha Abdulla, an associate professor and the former chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, explains: “The local media reflects the deep polarisation in the Egyptian society. Today, most people are so angry with the Brotherhood that has done a terrible job managing the country. That’s why when media outlets adopt an anti-Brotherhood lens, they think it is the patriotic thing to do.”

Abdulla adds: “However, media professionals should be able to separate themselves from that polarisation. What we see on TV is one-sided and the voices of the other camps are missing.”

Observations of the local media outlets show that the state-owned channels such as Nile News alongside privately owned channels such as CBC, ONTV and Dream TV have been blatantly covering events in Egypt’s recent crisis from one side only that is the side of the current interim government.

“Sometimes you can’t distinguish if these channels are reporting news or airing PR campaigns for the military. Even if the general audience accepts and welcomes this huge dosage of propaganda, these channels should seek some objectivity,” says Abdulla.

Hosts of talk shows and guests on these channels have been openly defending the state’s decisions and the security measures taken against the brotherhood members and supporters and mobilising people explicitly. ONTV’s morning show, TV presenter Amani El-Khayat supported her interviewee’s call for the people “to go down and form popular committees to protect themselves and their properties against the Brotherhood’s protesters.”

Yosri Fouda, the TV presenter of the popular Akher Kalam (Final Word) programme on ONTV issued a statement at the end of July on his Facebook page criticising the channel’s coverage, saying: “I’d like to note my reservations and extreme sadness over the media’s detrimental coverage of what is happening in Egypt… my channel included.”

On the other hand, channels such as Al-Hiwar have given a platform to the Brotherhood, airing statements of their leadership and dedicating its coverage to televising the marches of Morsi’s supporters.

Ahmed Kheir is the executive director of the Support for Information Technology Centre (SITC, an NGO working on media and right to information related issues), which follow news coverage to monitor violations, defined as bias by omissions, labeling, using misleading terminologies, distortion of facts, and lacking context.

“I see no local media channels, with the real sense of the word. What we have today is media that aims at inciting people. It is one-sided and deprives the audience’s right to access comprehensive information about the situation in Egypt. We know this because of the very few independent media outlets,” says Kheir.

Kheir notes that even the non-news content of these channels is politically charged; “Patriotic songs and movies seem to be chosen specifically to frame people’s knowledge and awareness.”

According to Abdulla, international media were slightly better in their coverage, but they suffered other problems.

“First, they lack context… Second, some facts and components are hard to represent or report on. Reporters, photographers and photojournalists run the risk of being beaten, hit, shot at or even detained. All these elements can affect reporting [for TV or print] and lead stories and reports to be one-sided and lacking in context,” she says.

Kheir notes: “There is a sentence that is used extensively, ‘the first civilian elected president ousted by the military’ and it lacks the fact about the people’s protests on 30 June. It misleads the listeners and wins their sympathy before they even continue the rest of the report.”

“Cairo gained the attention of the coverage while what’s happening elsewhere in rural areas and the attacks on churches were barely covered,” he added.

Abdulla believes international media can be excused from the lack of rural coverage, since it is difficult for foreign journalists to navigate, but local media have better access and know their way around.

Abdulla says Sky News Arabic (owned by the UAE) and the BBC were among the channels that tried to report as objectively as possible about Egypt. “They exert an effort to be balanced and they try to keep the principles of reporting in mind,” she says. Kheir believes Sky News Arabic has recently sunk into a bit biased coverage after the UAE showed support to Egypt.


It’s no better in print or online

Print and electronic media are also influenced by the same polarised coverage.

Abdulla says: “In print media, the borders between opinions and news pieces seem to blur. If it is an opinion story, you can pick sides as much as you want, but for news reporting you have an obligation to keep the basic elements of reporting.”

SITC has recently issued a manual for journalists on how to write accurate and professional news pieces; the centre said it saw a necessity in issuing such a manual after recording many violations of how news pieces were written in local print media.

“In print media, the borders between opinions and news pieces seem to blur. If it is an opinion story, you can pick sides as much as you want, but for news reporting you have an obligation to keep the basic elements of reporting,” says Rasha Abdulla  Aaron T. Rose
“In print media, the borders between opinions and news pieces seem to blur. If it is an opinion story, you can pick sides as much as you want, but for news reporting you have an obligation to keep the basic elements of reporting,” says Rasha Abdulla
Aaron T. Rose

“There are many criteria for how news pieces should be presented to readers; looking at most of newspapers in Egypt today, only very few abide by these criteria. This affects how readers perceive news,” says Kheir.

The platform of local electronic media is no better, says Bassil Nofal of Media Credibility Watch, a website that assesses and rates news websites. It highlights false news, makes a cumulative point system for each website for the number of invented stories they report and interacts with these websites in an attempt to improve reporting.

“Polarisation and bias increase every day. In our work, the number of false news stories has been on rise for the past two months, they’d be equivalent to almost six months of false news,” says Nofal.

According to the watch’s recent monthly report, the overall number of violations was 3885 found in a sample of news stories including 2278 news pieces from 17 news websites.

The popular Youm 7 Newspaper website has received a warning from the watch for publishing 19 false news stories during the month of August, before the end of the month.

“This contributes to rumours and affects the credibility of news in general,” he says.

Nofal notes that a significant issue in local online news websites stems from the fact that they translate some news from foreign websites.

“This is a huge problem because not only could the translation be inaccurate, but also some websites intentionally block names of sources, which disfigures the news and misleads the readers.”


Is radio more objective?

For Kheir, it is only logical for the news coverage and talk shows on radio to be impacted by the overall polarisation atmosphere. He particularly refers to Radio Masr (Radio Egypt) which is the state-owned station.

“I think Radio Masr follows the same policy of Nile News [state-owned news TV channel], they branch from the same root,” he says.

Nisreen Okasha, a news anchor and a presenter of a daily show on Radio Masr disagrees with Kheir. To her, polarisation took place during the year of Morsi’s rule.

“Under Mubarak, our station used to be limited like most media outlets in Egypt, only after the revolution did we experience an awakening, or a wave of freedom. The January 25th revolution brought us a new hope to be professional in our reporting. However, a few month after Morsi’s elections we experienced many interventions in our work and arbitrary measures against those who do not abide,” she says.

Okasha said that after the ouster of Morsi, the freedom that was stripped from them under the Brotherhood’s rule was back.

Recently, a Radio Masr listener would notice that the station plays national and patriotic songs almost all day. Also, in its talk shows, there is a heavy presence of security experts, most notably the Retired Major General Sameh Seif al-Yazal, who is known to side with the state’s policies.

Okasha believes that neither the patriotic songs nor the choice of the guests on the talk shows is part of a policy imposed from the top; they are rather voluntary actions by the workers and presenters at the station who suffered under the Brotherhood regime.

“Playing the patriotic songs is a tradition workers have grown accustomed to, but I believe our news coverage is impartial. We used to cover the sit-ins at Rabaa and get calls from the Brotherhood’s supporters. The only thing that may have affected this coverage is our limited resources and the shortage in correspondents.

“But I would understand if there are discrepancies in objectivity when it comes to talk shows because they are the responsibility of individual presenters,” she says.

Kheir points out that the current practices of the different media outlets are reminiscent of those under the deposed President Mubarak, under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and under Morsi.

“The media keeps playing a father figure; it attempts to impose a certain vision on the audience and blocks other information from it. They are the same suppressive practices we’ve been longing to terminate all along,” he says.

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