Egypt’s ‘chaotic’ media scene raises concern
Cairo - Calls are being made for reforms to Egypt’s “chaotic” media scene amid a noticeable rise in public anger at members’ practices.
Scores of private channels and newspapers deliver diverse news and viewpoints to tens of millions across the country but media experts say the need for reform could not be more pressing.
“What we see now is an uncontrollable media scene that does harm more than good,” said Hanan Youssef, a media professor at Ain Shams University. “Basic principles like neutrality, honest reporting and the protection of privacy and public interest are nowhere to be found in current media practices.”
A recent example occurred when advertisers withdrew from a private channel programme due to the “unethical” nature of the show after its host insulted a sexual harassment victim.
Reform advocates say the alarm should have come much earlier, claiming Egypt’s TV channels and newspapers have turned from a tool of change to political lobbying and rumour-mongering.
The media have been at the forefront of political transformations sweeping Egypt in recent years. Reporters accompanied Tahrir Square revolutionaries in their bid to bring autocratic president Hosni Mubarak down in 2011 and extensively covered the writing of the post-revolution constitution and the formation of parliament. They detailed social changes overwhelming Egypt after the revolution and the ouster by the army of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi in 2013.
Now, however, the media are turning into a national headache. Fistfights erupt on camera, political opponents are slandered and social groups are demonised. The effects threaten to go beyond Egypt’s borders.
A TV host almost caused a diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia when she chided the Ethiopian ambassador in Cairo during a phone interview and hung up on him. Another host caused tension between Egypt and Morocco when she said the North African state depended on prostitution for a large portion of its national income.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signaled his desperation with the media when he, citing a TV host who criticised him for meeting the chief executive officer of a German firm at the time Alexandria was flooded with rains, said he would complain to the Egyptian people about media professionals.
All through the second half of 2012 and the first half of 2013, Morsi’s backers camped out in front of the Media Production City, which hosts almost all of the studios of private channels, to protest what they described as “media violations”.
Columnist Anwar al-Hawari says Egypt’s media are the victims of attempts by wealthy Arab governments to stop the “Arab spring” and defend their own rule.
“They [Arab governments] spent lavishly on funding channels, publishing books and establishing research centres, all with the aim of demonising the ‘Arab spring’ and slandering its symbols,” he wrote in an article in the Arabic-language daily al-Masri al-Youm.
Nevertheless, a look at Egypt’s media, in which obscenity is becoming a norm, bias a common practice and libel no longer treated as a crime, reveals political opponents are not the only victims of this media. Media ethics have taken a hit, too.
This is why media expert Fatma al-Kasbani calls for the reinstitution of the Information Ministry to monitor the work of the nation’s TV channels.
“The Information Ministry should return, even if temporarily, to put this media scene in order,” she said.
The Information Ministry existed until June 2013 when it was shut down amid calls for more media freedom. The government then announced a plan for an independent media watchdog to regulate media practices but this agency has never been formed.
Ownership will be a major hindrance to introducing reforms to Egyptian media, observers say. The government owns some television channels, newspapers and magazines but the influence of state-run media is fading with the proliferation of privately owned newspapers and channels.
Private media, these observers add, is here to defend the interests of their owners, even if doing so is against the public good.
Another problem facing media reform has to do with establishing the standards and backgrounds of media professionals. Almost anybody can work as a journalist or TV host in Egypt. This is probably why lawyers, football players, retired police officers and actors and actresses are stepping into the media field and hosting programmes that influence millions of people.
“There is an urgent need for rethinking everything in this media scene, from the type of topics discussed to the lengths we can reach in discussing these topics,” Youssef said. “We cannot talk about sound media practices in the absence of ethics.”