Striving for credibility, Egyptian media become more critical of government

This criticism was considered by the public to signal the end of policies that restricted freedoms and caused public space to clam up.
Thursday 17/10/2019
Suleyman Rissouni, uncle of journalist Hajar Rissouni and editor in chief of Akhbar Al-Youm daily newspaper, speaks to the media in Rabat, Morocco, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. (AP)
Suleyman Rissouni, uncle of journalist Hajar Rissouni and editor in chief of Akhbar Al-Youm daily newspaper, speaks to the media in Rabat, Morocco, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. (AP)

Egyptian media have come under increasing fire from public opinion to keep pace with technological innovation and meet the demands of an audience looking for outside-the-box political visions.

If the digital revolution is forcibly creeping into many media outlets, bringing in new voices may take place either under pressure or voluntarily in line with the Egyptian government's growing awareness of the need to expand freedoms and address the public's reluctance to accept official and private media rather than turn to hostile satellite channels.

There were recently in the media signs of open criticism of government visions and actions. This criticism was considered by the public to signal the end of policies that restricted freedoms and caused public space to clam up. The media were the first victims of this trend and they lost credibility among both pro- and anti-government circles.

Recent days have seen the appearance of many new media faces. Most of them, it must be said, are known to be pro-regime to varying degrees. However, it was remarkable that many of the figures were opposed to official practices in the media. Some observers interpreted this as an official step towards change.

Observers also pointed out that the shock of recent demonstrations and frequent comments about them must have resonated positively in government corridors with influence over the media.

Some circles fear the dose of openness will increase and understood as a response to external pressures or a reaction to demonstrations that local media have failed to deal with in their traditional way.

This trend is likely to be slow or in the service of the government efforts to introduce media reforms that serve its objectives, leading to making media one of its political tools. Just as restricting the media can serve specific objectives, giving it more freedom can be in the service of careful calculations.

The Egyptian government's approach to the media -- and to security, politics and economy -- seems to have benefited from lessons learnt the hard way by pre-revolution governments.

The January 25, 2011, revolution revealed an abundance of political activists, a phenomenon new to Egypt where being active in politics was like engaging in entertainment or taking on extra work. Some of the new activists were active in the media and have become familiar faces on television or voices behind microphones.

It was an abundance that had gone out of control in an unprecedented way in Egypt but it strongly contributed to rallying public opinion against the Muslim Brotherhood until it fell from power.

The media played a key role in bringing down two presidents in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak and Muhammad Morsi. So, it is only normal that those who come after them would be extremely wary of the media and would try to domesticate and control it.

Such a policy achieved its goals at a certain stage when Egypt was being shaken violently by instability and the state apparatus needed quiet time to concentrate on confronting terrorism and extremist groups.

What the media did in those circumstances was increase the entertainment dose to keep audiences busy. Print and digital media plunged into a nostalgia phase and they seemed out of touch with reality, with people's worries and with the conflicts that were developing.

This obedient media had totally ignored to report on or deal with Arab issues that were central to Egypt’s national security. Egyptian audiences were kept in the dark.

As the entertainment dose increased and the nightly talk shows turned into entertainment, many Egyptians moved from Egyptian channels. When Egyptian media returned to treating political topics, they regained some of their audience.

Egyptian authorities must have seen the trend and learnt the lesson. The government enlisted the help of media figures who had been sidelined. Some of them returned to their old habit of criticising the Muslim Brotherhood; some began to play their part in criticising government policies.

The result was encouraging for more freedom. Egyptian audiences could not believe their eyes and ears when media personality Mohamed Ali Kheir returned to Cairo and Al-Nas TV with his usual scorching criticism directed at the government and its agencies to the point that some in the audience were under the impression they were watching an opposition station broadcast from Qatar or Turkey.

The audience’s surprise grew into disbelief when Yasser Rizk, chairman of Akhbar al-Youm press corporation, known for being very close to the government, appeared next to Kheir in episodes of the latter’s programme, giving his two cents' worth of government criticism.

Some in Egypt were relieved by these signs of openness and considered them a promising beginning. A second group, however, received them with reservation, because what had been presented as an increase in the margin of freedoms had taken a populist character.

The government has given the public this dose of freedom because it is in line with its aspirations to reduce internal tensions and pull the carpet from under the opposition that had tried to sell the official clamp on the media to Western parties believing in the bad health of political and press freedoms in Egypt.

The second team, however, believes there are other operations needed to remove large and small tumours in media because the public will not accept having the margin of freedom made available to the media to serve government purposes and no more.

If general audiences do not find the desired response, they know that they can find better fare on other outlets. The government must convince the public that its media will recover before the optimists change camp.