The trial of the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt has drawn the world’s attention to the desperate situation for reporters working in the country. But the attitude among Egyptian journalists is complex.
In the ON-TV Academy, where the next generation of Egyptian TV journalists are being trained, there is a glass display case with a sign on it that says “Clashes Museum.” It contains three shelves of dusty and broken TV cameras and microphones that the academy’s tyro reporters brought back from the many protests that have raged in Cairo since the 2011 revolution. These aren’t easy times for journalists in Egypt.
The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has put the country seventh on its list of most dangerous places for journalists to work, while the latest World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, ranked Egypt 159th out of 180 countries in the world. The organization says that five journalists have been killed, and at least 80 detained since the new regime took over from toppled President Mohammed Morsi on July 3 last year.
Recently, international attention has been attracted by the trial of 20 journalists, mostly from the Al Jazeera network, who were arrested in December and charged with a litany of offenses from smearing Egypt’s reputation to aiding terrorists. They have been kept in desperately inhumane conditions without trial for more than two months now.
The case provoked a major campaign from international human rights groups last week, but the protests in Egypt were more muted, and not only because of the heavy crackdown on journalists in the country. Egyptians, it turns out, have a different view of Al Jazeera than their foreign colleagues. “As a media person, I would say for sure Al Jazeera are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said ON-TV’s Haitham Sawy. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Al Jazeera propaganda?
Even journalists openly critical of the current Egyptian government and the impending presidency of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi criticized Al Jazeera’s coverage following the ouster of Morsi. The Qatari-based channel – especially its Arabic network and its Egyptian offshoot, which has been banned – is dismissed by many in Egypt (and in many Gulf States) as a stooge to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered responsible for terrorist attacks.
Mahmoud Salem, satirical commentator at English-language paper the Egypt Daily News, is a friend of Mohamed Fahmy, one of the Al Jazeera journalists on trial. “Before he was arrested I talked to him many times, telling him to quit,” he told DW. “I talked to many of my journalist friends, and I asked them, ‘do you consider Al Jazeera journalism?’ and they all said, to various degrees, ‘No.’ I asked them, ‘Would you work for Al Jazeera, and they said, ‘No, because if you do a story it’s not going to have as much credibility as it would on any other channel.'”
Sawy also said that Al Jazeera’s reputation dropped dramatically after, so he claims, the channel showed images of anti-Morsi demonstrations as if they were pro-Morsi demonstrations. “I used to like Al Jazeera International. We used to chant their name on Tahrir,” he said. “I had good friends there, but now, no – because they are not reflecting the truth. And the people in the streets right now hate Al Jazeera a lot. A lot of my friends in the media are refusing offers from Al Jazeera.”
This was why, according to Salem, the government withdrew Al Jazeera’s licences and closed their offices – when the journalists continued working without licences, their arrests were virtually inevitable. None of that excuses the detention and trial though. “They just got scapegoated in a fight between Egypt and Qatar,” said Salem. “I don’t think they should have been arrested, and the charges against them are totally trumped up. I think they should have been allowed to continue operating – I think if they arrested them for operating illegally they could have simply fined them – they didn’t have to accuse of them supporting terrorism. They were an example.”
Egypt’s Trade and Investment Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour recently admitted to the BBC that arresting the journalists was “The Mistake – ‘the’ with a capital T,” and as Salem points out, the Egyptian government must have recognized how the trial has only harmed its image. Perhaps for this reason, the regime does tolerate some critical voices in the domestic media. Salem’s most recent column, for example, is a typically sarcastic mockery of el-Sissi. “This past week has been weird,” he told DW. “People have been calling me and saying, ‘Oh my God you’re so brave,’ and I was like, ‘What do you mean? I’m just writing what is happening.’ And I didn’t notice until now that apparently everyone else hasn’t been writing what’s happening.”
Salem doesn’t see any point in self-censoring his work. “There’s no list anywhere that says you can write about this but you can’t write about that,” he said. “The problem is this: there’s no manual. What could you get arrested for writing? That’s the point: you don’t know.”
This creates fear among journalists, especially those working on stories that the Egyptian military might not like. Muhammad Mansour, a journalist for the Egypt Independent, is currently investigating the killings that took place on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, when snipers picked off protesters – or else blinded them by deliberately aiming at their eyes. “It is very difficult to get anything exposed otherwise you will be taken and any charge, like espionage or attempt to topple the regime, will be easily made up against you and the judiciary will give you a harsh verdict,” he told DW in an email. “I fear publishing, but since I write in English, most Egyptians do not read in English and I think the government is uninterested in English-language media. But to be honest, so far, I was not threatened or anything. I think I am lucky.”
Meanwhile, there is a certain resentment among Egyptian journalists about the way foreign media represents Egypt. Sawy’s pet peeve is foreign correspondents who stay ensconsed in Cairo’s affluent suburbs and quote bloggers as sources: “Egyptian society is not represented by two bloggers on Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “You have to move. You have to walk in the street, get on the Metro, and ask people – that’s your job.”
The popular view, he maintains, is that el-Sissi is bringing the country much-needed stability – and he insists, despite the crackdown, that press freedom is still better than it was under Mubarak. “Before the revolution, it was a problem to shoot in the streets – even if you had permission and an ID,” he said. “I was arrested three times myself. Now you can shoot everywhere – the policemen respect the journalists’ documents. Right now, the media is booming in Egypt. We are defending what happened on June 30 [the ouster of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood], because we like what happened on June 30.”
Though the reality is clearly not quite that rosy (Salem speculated that Sawy may only have told DW the above out of fear), the media is obviously trapped in a web of biases. As Mansour puts it, everyone is culpable one way or another: “I do not respect Egyptian media and somehow do not see foreign media able to get connected to people at grass-root levels,” he told DW. “Al Jazeera Arabic [as distinct from Al Jazeera International] is like a propaganda machine when they speak about Egypt, taking the side of the Muslim Brotherhood and ignoring the other side. Egyptian media are taking the military take and forget about the other side.”
Eslam el-Qady, a course coordinator at the ON Academy, thinks the West is just as biased as any other: “The Western media concentrates on some concepts, and the Eastern media concentrates on other concepts. So who is right? There is no objectivity.”