Egypt: Autocratic traditions limit options for media self-regulation
By Tarek Atia and Ahmed Montasser
Adopting a self-regulatory system will not be easy for Egyptian media, despite the growing support of media leaders who recognise its vital importance. Their problem is that in a country dominated by state interference and legal traditions of media control, the power to effectively create media self-regulation lies elsewhere.
The ambiguity of the situation leaves the media’s future in flux, beholden to a transition period and waiting for an unclear legal environment to be brought more in line with the media freedoms and other positive principles enshrined in a newly-minted constitution.
Clearing the air and creating a new media landscape is meant to be the job of a still as yet unelected parliament, and there will certainly be a political and media battle of sorts when the actual writing of law begins.
Meanwhile, both sides of the equation – those working in the media, and those consuming the media – remain dissatisfied with the status quo. There is more media, but there is also more media noise. The media landscape on all platforms is constantly growing.
But with all the new content choices available, there have also been serious breaches of media ethics, in the form of troubling but increasingly prevalent practices like airing leaked phone conversations, smear campaigns, an abundance of what appears to be paid journalism, and a preponderance of unverified rumors, especially on digital media and satellite television.
These are some of the ailments that a self-regulatory system might begin to treat. Others include ownership issues, and accreditation. Self-regulation involves voluntary systems established and used by journalists, editors and media owners to monitor and review journalistic performance, to deal with complaints of the audience and to provide appropriate and acceptable forms of remedy where they are needed, such as the right of reply.
This report looks at the effectiveness of the self regulatory systems and mechanisms currently in place in Egypt and reflects on efforts being made to generate increased discussion and debate amongst the media community — and the public at large — about issues of ethics and self regulation.
Media leaders acknowledge the challenges involved in changing a complex and bureaucratic system. Their chances of effectively doing so are surveyed in the report’s conclusion.
These debates are currently taking place as media play a growing role in all aspects of Egyptian life, making even more urgent the concept of a self-regulating – rather than a state regulated and controlled media environment.
Self-regulation at work: Individually, collectively and nationally
Historically, there has been a mostly unspoken agreement amongst journalists, media professionals and the majority of the audience regarding the basic concepts and ethics that should guide journalists and media.
However, in recent years, as Egyptian media has become more diversified, and as society itself has rapidly changed, these norms have been challenged in both positive and negative ways. As a result, media experts have increasingly called for a more professional and comprehensive approach to self regulation, citing the need to place Egyptian media solidly on the track of its global counterparts.
These efforts have resulted in – first and foremost — a vibrant discussion — and eventually the establishment of committees working towards these goals. The key questions surround the extent to which journalists are free to act according to conscience and to what extent are they aware of their ethical obligations.
Although journalism schools across the country teach students the basic principle that journalists must seek the truth, no matter what, awareness of that ethic, and the ability to practice it, is something else.
Journalism graduates in the real world sometimes find themselves beholden to other concerns, related to ownership, mismanagement, politics, and perhaps even corruption.
The lack of an established, credible and respected self-regulatory system to deal with the media, combined with the relatively poor performance of existing self-regulatory structures like the Press Syndicate and the Supreme Press Council, has disappointed many journalists. Some are now attempting to create their own mechanisms to promote concepts like transparency, equal access to information, and consensus-driven codes of ethics based upon the best practices of journalism at work around the world.
While results of these efforts remain to be seen, their positive impact is already starting to be felt as these issues come to the forefront of media practitioners’ and owners’, as well as the audience’s, concerns.
At the same time there is a growing concern about the effectiveness of self-regulation inside media houses. Egyptian media have historically sought to maintain a heritage of self-regulation, consciously and unconsciously linked to a social contract with the audience on what is acceptable and unacceptable.
Media that crossed these lines – whether via sensationalist tabloid style material or hard hitting political or social coverage – generate equal amounts of admiration and disdain amongst the media community and the general public.
The role of media – over the past decade, and especially since 2011 – has been a strong topic of discussion at all levels of society and has inspired many calls for stricter standards.
As a result, according to Ragaey El Merghany, a veteran news agency editorial manager, a multitude of newspapers and television stations, public and private, have worked on creating rules and norms inspired by self-regulatory mechanisms used elsewhere in the world, in order to raise standards to international levels, and earn credibility among readers and audiences.
In addition, leading online news site Al Youm Al Sabie published an internal booklet for self regulation, in an attempt to spread awareness of the site’s editorial policies throughout its different departments and amongst the journalists themselves.
The outlet is often accused of breaching editorial standards of conduct. As one of the most visited sites, it has had issues with speed versus accuracy and sensationalism as it aggressively pursues digital readers. It is hoped that the establishment of this kind of in-house ethics guide will help curb these practices.
One key challenge for media houses is to have credible systems of dealing with complaints and engaging with the audience. Media lawyer Ehab Sallam thinks media organisations have to rapidly adapt to deal more effectively with public complaints. The law stipulates fines and jail time for ethical breaches, but in Sallam’s view self-regulation would be a more effective way of dealing with these types of issues.
Media need to pursue two parallel tracks, he says. Enforcing codes of ethics and regulations within media to reduce the number of complaints, combined with voluntary creation of internal self-regulatory committees that have the right, with legal standing, to examine audience complaints and impose financial or other penalties as a deterrent to further violations.
Media expert Khaled El Sergany, who passed away suddenly, prior to this report being published, observed an increasing awareness amongst journalists regarding where their loyalties lie.
“Journalists are increasingly aware that their loyalties should be to the public, by focusing on truly important issues, rather than those serving special interests,” he says. He laments that weak and corrupt media professionals still exist, but suggests they could be marginalised through self-regulation.
There is a growing tendency, he said, for journalists and media to try to correct their mistakes quickly in order not to be accused, or worse, sued. Media Law 96 for the year 1990 stipulates a fine or even imprisonment for such publication violations.
Sallam and Merghany also mentioned multiple cases where media organisations suspended, fined or even fired journalists — and especially TV presenters — who violated ethical codes governing false accusations and insults towards third parties or guests.
Although the ombudsman or readers’ editor does not exist as an official position within media, a robust informal system has emerged between media outlets, audiences and public figures, which has created a fairly effective – albeit ad hoc — right to reply mechanism.
This development, and it is an increasing one in an ever more digital media landscape, has also inspired great debates amongst media professionals and leaders for a need for a more formal readers’ editor or ombudsman system in each media house.
For now, the way it works is as follows: on television, it happens on the spot during a talk show and in newspapers it will be the next day. On the web, it’s also very fast. The public figure or entity affected by a report is allowed to reply to the claims or evidence that has been presented, whether they are related to poor public services, or anything else.
Improving the newsroom culture is one step, but there is also a need to create systems of good governance in terms of media ownership and management practice.
According to media lawyer Sallam, corporate social responsibility has sometimes had a negative effect on media ethics. For the most part, it helps generate positive coverage of projects being funded by corporate interests. Sallam thinks there needs to be a more robust and serious industry-wide discussion of this phenomenon in order to reach a common consensus to clarify relations between media, government, and business interests. This is in the interest of greater transparency and to ensure objective coverage of matters in the public interest.
El Mergany says issues of media ownership and its lack of transparency are crucial points that need to be addressed by media professionals discussing self regulation. At present, he said, most media outlets tend to hide the most basic information about their sources of financial support and/or true partners or owners — from readers, and even from their own staff.
They are also secretive about circulation and viewership. The same goes for annual budgets, yet these matters are key concerns for a self regulatory mechanism to produce a healthier media climate.
Moreover, some media organisations are not transparent about their editorial policy, whether with staff or the audience. This has resulted in credibility problems both within organisations, and related to the audience.
The lack of transparency is vital to many of the current issues faced by the media community.
Building a culture of self-regulation at national level
Creating systems for media monitoring and voluntary press councils across all media platforms is a major task for media reformers. It begins with a need to forge new structures out of existing systems. Currently, media monitoring takes place in different ways. One level is more formal, and connected to official, semi-official, and academic bodies.
The Supreme Press Council, for instance, produces a regular report that assesses violations of the Press Charter of Honor. These reports are usually covered in the media. They receive especially extensive coverage in a particular outlet if the council has something good to say, or if it trashes a feisty competitor.
And with the explosion of media outlets on all platforms, there is some self- monitoring and self-criticism within media. Many television shows are dedicated to monitoring media, and on social media there is every form of media watch, from sites that expose rumors and lies in the media, to others that use media reports as fodder for memes and sarcastic commentary.
Media experts believe these trends are a healthy indicator of an inclination for self monitoring and correction; at the same time, it is woefully clear that there needs to be greater linkages between such tools within a more holistic, integrated, widely understood, and effective self regulatory climate.
Since January 2011, for instance, the legal climate and the mechanisms that regulate the way media operates have been a subject of great discontent. Key questions are: should the ministry of information be annulled and should state-run channels be privatised or turned into public broadcasting companies?
Other questions relate to
- ownership and governance of existing media, which continues to dominate the industry and employ the vast majority of media workers; and
- regulation of broadcast frequencies, local terrestrial radio and television stations, as well as the licensing of newspapers, and the completely uncharted territory of digital media.
These issues have been debated by media experts in a variety of closed and open forums. It is generally agreed that the Egyptian media landscape is littered with legal challenges. It would be overly optimistic to think that all of these can be dealt with simultaneously.
Media experts conclude that priorities must be formulated. Some are advocating self-regulation as a potentially strong framework through which many of these critical matters can be dealt with.
For instance, the constitution passed in 2014 enshrines media freedoms and sets forth a plan for establishing national councils of media to help self regulate the profession. However, it remains to be seen how the upcoming elected parliament will turn these constitutional principles into laws and good practice.
The two key laws governing the media that need to be amended, according to Sallam and El Merghany, are:
- Law 96 from 1990, which gives the Supreme Press Council the sole right to issue licenses for newspapers, and
- The 2009 law granting the Investment Ministry the organising of, and the right to register, Egyptian and Arab satellite television channels
These laws and others have served the media in Egypt for years, but with a clear bias towards media owned by or aligned with the government. Media observers agree that the law is selectively used against those who step out of line. The worry is that the government will attempt to ignore efforts by media professionals to build consensus within media on the need for self-regulation and will, instead, continue to impose outdated legal controls.
Self-regulation: can it win respect inside and outside media?
There is no doubt that those media personalities, outlets, news programs and newspapers that adhere to a clear and transparent internal system of self-regulation gain the respect of the audience.
This is irrespective of their political leanings. International ethical journalism best practices have shown that when media provide a process by which the audience, or specifically those subject to media scrutiny, are given a chance to air their complaints, it builds trust and improves the media’s reputation.
El Merghany and Sallam both outlined the steps successful media practitioners take to ensure this takes place: fact-checking; objectivity and balanced reporting; accepting criticism; and providing the right of reply to the audience or anybody who is being accused; avoiding using provocative, insulting and aggressive language; working within the limits of the law; correcting mistakes immediately; and concern for issues of privacy.
Practitioners, such as Al Masry Al Youm standards editor Ragab Galal, believe that the mutual respect that is generated between a news medium and its audience and sources can quickly spread – in the form of positive momentum — to other media outlets. It also encourages professionalism among colleagues.
Participants at recently held workshops on self-regulation consistently, however, highlighted the important role that management must play in cementing these trends within media. Television, newspaper and digital media owners must aim to earn the respect and trust of their audience.
They have to prove their commitment to widely-accepted and constitutionally enshrined norms and values of journalism. When they give in to political pressure, they are exposed, and will inevitably lose credibility. It’s no way to run a successful media business.
Sallam acknowledges that media relations with commercial sponsors and advertisers play a major role in the success or failure of this dynamic. Managers need to find ways to formalise rules of conduct so that owners and editors in chiefs don’t find themselves forced to bend to pressure that could affect editorial content, and thus damage a media entity’s reputation. A commitment to transparency, and constant monitoring of performance standards, are two of the main keys to earning the audiences’ respect and trust.
Beyond the Arab Spring – A media revival under self-regulation?
The need for self-regulatory bodies in Egyptian media has never been stronger. In fact, there is an overall combination of concern and anticipation regarding a foregone conclusion — that the structures regulating the profession must be revamped.
Media are just beginning to understand that without effective self-regulation, external political and commercial influences – underpinned by law – will control their future. It makes more sense for the regulation of the industry to come from within.
This will require an acknowledgement that there have been increasingly frequent and worrying lapses in media ethics. Leaked phone calls, a lack of transparency regarding ownership and editorial policy, the rampant spread of rumors and false news on a multitude of online outlets and social media: all of these matters need to be addressed in a serious and systematic way.
The healthy tendency towards increased and vigorous media monitoring, combined with a generally greater awareness of the need for self-regulation point to a chance at finally reaching a tipping point when a real difference can be made. Self-regulatory ideas that have been percolating at the fringes, can now be pushed into the mainstream of debate.
Even members of existing and antiquated structures now acknowledge that there needs to be a change. Some are already working on draft laws and other policy initiatives.
A state-appointed consulting council /committee of journalists and media professionals has been formed; it is tasked with coming up with new laws based on concepts of media self-regulation, via a spectrum of tools and mechanisms, including revised codes of ethics. Many members of the committee are well-established pioneers of self-regulation.
But will this finally be the chance to put ideas into concrete practice? Or will such a committee again find itself thwarted by control-oriented political elements with loyalties to the regime?
The key answer to this question is in raising awareness of the issue within the media community itself and creating a movement for more freedom and more self-rule within journalism.
A significant example of how this can be done is found in an incident that took place in early 2014, when the Ministry of Information released a code of ethics, which was swiftly rejected by the media – not necessarily because of its poor quality, but because of the way it was drawn up and imposed.
It had been discussed in an entirely top down manner, with very little attention or input given to those who had already been working on the grass roots level to build consensus on the contents of a code. When it was released (accompanied by the usual tired propaganda generated by some areas of state media), the main reactions it generated were ambivalent silence from the wider media community and a harsh backlash from groups inside journalism who were looking for new and different approaches to these issues.
International organisations like UNESCO are already working with local entities to spread awareness. These groups have managed to generate a healthy level of dialogue within media and journalism, via workshops and round tables, lectures by international and local experts, as well as the publication of booklets and articles.
At the same time there has been the inauguration of several new inter-industry bodies. The nascent Egyptian Editors Association (EEA) is a type of self regulatory body, providing a platform for editorial leaders from across the media spectrum to engage in healthy debates about matters of mutual professional concern. Recent dialogues have taken place on paid journalism, issues related to balancing security concerns with objective journalism, ethics in digital publishing, and more.
There is a long way to go but a new mood and yearning for change is at work in Egyptian media. With the proper strategic planning, nurture and concerted efforts, it could turn into an effective lobbying effort which will result in both widespread acceptance and the eventual flourishing of self- regulatory tools and mechanisms that will transform the media landscape.