By Salma El Wardany and Caroline Alexander
July 15, 2013 6:01 PM EDT
July 15, 2013 6:01 PM EDT
On the day that Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Mursi was removed from power by throngs of protesters and an army decree, news anchor Ibrahim Eissa was so overcome he summoned balloon-waving studio staff to join him on set for an emotional rendition of a national song.
Flanked by colleagues flashing victory signs, holding flags and singing “Madad,” or “Strength,” the mustachioed television presenter ended his July 3 edition by telling viewers, “We have triumphed on this day of pride.”
He wasn’t alone. Amr Adeeb interrupted his daily news show to chant “Long live Egypt, our sorrow is over,” as he draped himself in the Egyptian flag. Over on the Dream 2 channel, Hala Sarhan sang the national anthem over footage of anti-government protesters celebrating in Tahrir Square.
Television bias mirrors, and may even be deepening, rifts between Egypt’s liberals and conservatives. About 25 of the country’s 200 private satellite channels are widely viewed, according to Gamal Eid, executive director of the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights. Their news and talk shows are drawing bigger audiences while making less effort to appear neutral. Some don’t bother at all.
“There’s a clear overlap between the journalist or the anchor as a professional and as a political activist or player, which is having a damaging effect on the street,” Eid said in an interview. “This is not just the Islamist or anti-Mursi channels, it’s the case with all media outlets. I’ve seen incitement on both sides.”
Bias was clear in the coverage of violence outside the Cairo headquarters of the Republican Guards on July 8, when more than 50 people, mostly Mursi supporters, were shot dead.
The most popular channels -- CBC, Tahrir, ONtv, and Al Kahera wal Nas, which airs Eissa and Adeeb’s shows -- didn’t examine conflicting accounts of what provoked the shooting, the deadliest incident since the removal of Mursi. Instead, they endorsed the army’s account and blamed unrest on the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mursi hails.
Pro-Mursi protesters in Cairo have been carrying photos of anchors they deem hostile to the Brotherhood, who they say are fomenting social tensions. At a rally last week, speakers slammed “the lying secular media.”
Not that the Muslim Brotherhood has fared any better. “Pro-Mursi media have used an anti-sectarian message and hate speech to help rally support, while calling opposition members pagans, Christians and infidels,” Eid said.
“The media is definitely playing a big role in how audiences understand what is happening, some news anchors are even more influential than political leaders,” said Fatima El-Issawi, who leads a London School of Economics research project titled Arab Revolutions: Media Revolutions.
There were hopes the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would lead to the creation of an independent, impartial media in Egypt, El-Issawi said. Instead, nothing changed.
“This was the first real challenge for national media and the result is very poor,” she said in an interview. “We wouldn’t expect it to be inclusive, 100 percent balanced or give the same timing to different parties, but it has become a propagandistic media; it is very alarming.”
The rift inside Egypt is mirrored in broadcasters abroad.
After the Republican Guards shooting, Qatar-based Al Jazeera interviewed Brotherhood members who said the attack was unprovoked, while Al Arabiya, which is owned by Saudi Arabia, showed images it said indicated armed Islamists had fired on government troops. Qatar gave $8 billion to Mursi’s government and Saudi Arabia pledged $5 billion just after his ouster.
At least three Islamist channels supporting Mursi -- Misr 25, al-Naas and al-Hafez TV -- were suspended after his removal, accused of inciting violence. Al-Jazeera’s local Mubasher channel was raided by security forces, and during a military news conference last week, anti-Mursi journalists demanded its reporters be forced out of the event. Chants of “Out! Out!” accompanied them as they left.
Even, so a number of journalists are drawing lessons from the portrayal of Egypt’s latest revolt.
“We were reporting the Muslim Brotherhood account as if it was the plain truth,” said Fatma Nabil, who in September 2012 became the first woman to appear on Egyptian state TV in a hijab, or Islamic veil, and recently resigned from Al Jazeera. “After events at the Republican Guards headquarters, I realized I could no longer be part of such one-sided coverage.”
From across the media divide, Lilian Daoud, host of the Soura Al-Kamla talk show on ONtv, is also speaking out.
“Now that most of the channels supporting Mursi are silenced, I feel I have the responsibility more than at any other time to give space to the other side,” Daoud said. “We don’t want to switch from religious fascism to military and social fascism backed and fueled by media.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Salma El Wardany in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org; Caroline Alexander in London at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at firstname.lastname@example.org