11th September 2014
By Stefanie Chernow

EJN in Egypt: Cairo’s War on Terror Raises Fears for Independent Journalism


Aidan White

This week leaders of the Ethical Journalism Network visited Egypt to meet with independent media and to discuss the professional crisis which has overwhelmed journalism across the country in recent months.

The EJN delegation met with leaders of major media outlets – Al-Ahram, the state-owned press group; Al Masry Al Youm, the biggest-selling daily; ONTV, the leading independent private network – as well as leading journalists and media activists.

On the agenda was the crisis facing media in the wake of the government’s tough anti-terrorist strategy, which has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement of ousted President Morsi. The Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organisation. Almost all of the country’s media – state-owned and private – have lined up to support the hard-line stance of newly-elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a position which has raised concerns about levels of newsroom independence.

The EJN mission was supported by the newly-formed Egyptian Editors Association, a group seeking to strengthen professionalism across all platforms of journalism and which aims to become a focal point for media development in Cairo.

On the positive side, the mission found enthusiasm to expand the scope for independent journalism, particularly through local newspapers and the spread of digital platforms for the delivery of news. Two examples are the hyperlocal journalism initiatives of the Egyptian Media Development Programme, which is a Cairo city-centre free newspaper, and Welad ElBalad Media Services, a string of regional online and local newspapers. These initiatives were launched by Tarek Atia and Fatemah Farag, respectively, both of them leaders of the new editors’ movement.

At the same time there is a flourishing spectrum of online audio and video channels despite worrying attempts by the government to crack down on critical online voices.

The mission found that across the media landscape there is an urgent need for legal and regulatory reform.

Optimists hope that the expected election of a new parliament in the coming months will signal the start of a media reform process, including the launching of a new body – the National Council for Media and Journalism – an independent entity charged with restructuring and strengthening the media scene. However, some journalists fear that even if new laws are drafted and passed, these may not live up to the promises of press freedom set out in the new constitution and they will not be accompanied by the political will needed to finally eliminate the obstacles of bureaucracy and corruption that restrict media development.

Currently, even the most basic information needed to guide media reform is not available. The mission found an almost total absence of useful and reliable data on the circulation of newspapers, the audience share of broadcast networks and the size and scope of the advertising market. Most of this information is not freely available and few people in the know are willing to share what they know. Structures for independent evaluation and monitoring of the media landscape are urgently needed.

The need for reform is undeniable, but whether it will proceed without interruption is uncertain, not least because of the prevailing political atmosphere. With most journalists actively supporting the government’s national security strategies and the crackdown on political opponents, there is a single, uncritical media narrative. People with any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood have been isolated and removed from public view.

Curiously, on many other issues there is still a lively and even robust journalism at work, but the security agenda is strictly off limits for media criticism.

The strident campaign against the Brotherhood and “terrorists” has also increased levels of intolerance in public opinion. Government and also many media people talk of reflecting “the will of the people” with little recognition that the government’s rhetoric and unquestioning media support has done much to stir up passions on the street. Any individual or organisation thought to be sympathetic to the old order risks being targeted, including media or journalists.

One group under fire because of coverage thought to be overly sympathetic to Islamist extremists is the Qatar-based network Al Jazeera. In one illuminating session, the EJN group met with officials from the Egyptian government and pressed them on the need to release jailed journalists, including Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed. But the delegation was told that no action is likely until the appeals against conviction earlier this year are finalised. However, there is an expectation that a presidential amnesty may follow if the jail terms are upheld.

In the same meeting there was much talk about the court’s condemnation of professionalism in the Aljazeera newsroom and its perceived pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias. Aljazeera’s failure to respond convincingly to questions over its coverage of Egypt and specifically some instances of alleged unprofessional conduct has angered many journalists. As a result, reporting of the prosecution of journalists and protests over the closing down of dissident voices has been surprisingly muted within the Egyptian media community.

In its follow-up work the EJN is planning more joint actions with Egyptian media, including a seminar on developing marketing strategies for digital journalism and the need for self-regulation to deal with professional problems.

At the same time, the EJN plans to continue its dialogue with journalists and editors over the dangers for ethical journalism when newsrooms are perceived to be working hand-in-hand with government and, in the process, stifling legitimate discussion and questioning of government policy and actions.

Further reading:

Beyond Al Jazeera: Egypt’s Chilling Verdict on Media Freedom