On February 3, 2011, senior news anchor and former deputy head of Nile TV Shahira Amin resigned. Citing the channel’s refusal to cover the protests at Tahrir, she accused her station of siding with the Mubarak government. Since Amin’s public condemnation of her employer, other journalists working for state television have followed suit. Television host Hala Helmy has not appeared on air since January 25th, 2011, and went on to co-found the Media Revolutionaries Front, one of several emerging groups that protest journalistic complicity with the state’s media policies. This past February, these groups helped organize dozens of state journalists and producers to protest outside of the office of the Minister of Information, General Ahmed Anis, chanting slogans like, “Minister of Information, stop lying and tell people the truth!” and “Minister of military media, go join them back at the base!”
Critics have focused more on the overhaul of state television than on its print counterparts. But even without the bombast of Helmy and Amin’s statements, print media is also changing; the Journalists’ Syndicate (composed of print-media journalists) is becoming increasingly critical of the regime since its last election, and state newspaper coverage of the SCAF has become more cautiously critical. While it is still too soon to assume direct connections between the syndicate’s statements and the changes in coverage by state papers, it is valuable, however, to look at the two as part of a broader process of reforming the state media apparatus.
Before the Egyptian uprising, the allegiance of state media was clear. As Issandr El Amrani argued in 2005, the three main state dailies—al-Ahram (Egypt’s oldest Arabic-language newspaper), al-Gomhoria (founded by the Nasser government), and al-Akhbar—had little editorial freedom and were “run as public mobilization tools whose essential role is to justify, explain and endorse the regime's policies.” During the uprising, all three government papers flipped their coverage from support of Mubarak to support of the uprisings. But in the months that followed, government papers worried that publishing accounts of military complicity in protestors’ deaths would bring about SCAF retaliation. This was especially relevant considering the widespread coverage of two flashpoint incidents that raised public ire toward the military government: the Maspero violence of October 2011 and this past February’s Port Said soccer riot. How the state press covered these two events, nearly four months apart, shows a subtle shift in the editorial policy of government-backed papers, and al-Akhbar’s coverage presents a usefully stark example of the shifting landscape of permissible criticism of the country’s leadership, having come much closer in recent months to adopting a narrative of SCAF culpability.
Following the violence at Maspero, al-Akhbar suggested in their October 10 edition that protesters, not soldiers, had commandeered military vehicles and drove them into the crowds; civilians “attacked military police with machetes and Molotov cocktails,” going on further to quote the military’s statements that described the protestors as “gangsters trying to undermine the revolution.” Personal testimonies and clips posted to YouTube largely vindicate protesters of instigating violence, but two days later SCAF General Adel Emara told reporters at a press conference that it was indeed soldiers who drove the vehicles, though he believed the deaths were caused by the soldiers’ attempts to escape, rather than from a premeditated plan of massacre. Al-Akhbar had thus jumped the gun and had begun defending leaders—who in turn, spun another story entirely.
The day after the Port Said riot, the paper’s presentation of events was far more measured, with the headline soberly neutral: “Disaster in Port Said’s Stadium.” While back in October the editors had clung to a narrative acquitting the military—even at the risk of contradicting SCAF’s own statements days later—the same paper now went so far as to quote Samir Zaher, head of the Egyptian Football Federation, who accused the SCAF of complicity: “I saw soldiers anchored, who do not move, do not interfere, do not see and do not hear anything. Where were the armed forces who are usually there in these events?” Only the Sunday after the events did al-Akhbar begin favoring the narratives put forth by al-Ahram and al-Gomhoria, which suggested that imprisoned members of the former regime had plotted Port Said with headlines that read: “Two previous MPs, a police officer and a friend of Gamal Mubarak involved in Port Said.”
What happened between Maspero and Port Said to explain this shift? In the large, complex bureaucracy of the state newspaper system, it is difficult to draw direct lines of cause and effect, but it difficult to ignore the crucial elections to the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate. Shortly after Maspero, the syndicate mobilized on October 26 to hold its first elections since the resignation of Mubarak-era chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmed in late February—its first election outside the National Democratic Party’s influence.
According to al-Ahram Weekly’s Khaled Dawoud, the Mubarak government often supported one candidate and resorted to “legal trickery”—suspending voting and padding journalists’ salaries in order to get their preferred candidate elected chairman. This election, however, the two leading candidates were Yehia Qallash (supported by liberals and Nasserists) and Mamdouh El-Waly, a deputy editor of economic affairs for Al Ahram. The latter was thought by many to be connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, but he repeatedly denied that he was the movement’s candidate. The Brotherhood referred to El Waly as an “ally” and in an online statement publicly approved of his victory.
Both Qallash and El-Waly stressed “freedom of expression” in their statements leading up to the election, and El-Waly’s eventual election as chairman was hailed by bloggers and journalists as a major benchmark—many noting that state-owned newspapers might break away from the ruling regime’s wishes under a more independent union. Once the Brotherhood conceded to having lost the election (they ran five candidates and only one was elected), it became clear for the time being that El-Waly, despite being seen as an ally, is not beholden to the group.
Immediately after elections, the Journalists’ Syndicate began issuing statements at odds with its previous political commitments to the regime; on November 16, they condemned military trials for civilians, and on November 21, they highlighted incidents of the detention and assault of both independent- and state-backed journalists in Alexandria. Later, on December 13, the syndicate denounced the arrest of two female correspondents for al-Fagr (an independent daily) for allegedly “violating the privacy” of a Muslim cleric. “We will not play the role of bystanders to the detention of journalists,” El-Waly said; he called for new laws that demanded allowed the syndicate—instead of the public prosecutor—be responsible for the reprimand of journalists’ breaches in professional ethics, adding: “It makes no sense that journalists are jailed after the revolution that came in the first place to demand freedoms.”
Through statements such as these, El-Waly has been able to affect public conversation, though it remains unclear how large a voice it will have if it comes into conflict with the wishes of the Brotherhood, which currently forms a majority of both parliament and the leadership of other professional syndicates (of lawyers, engineers, doctors, etc.). Furthermore, although state journalists can no longer be assumed to strictly follow the government’s narrative, reporters for state papers have spent decades practicing a form of journalism that looks to support and reaffirm the policies of the country’s leaders. But Al-Akhbar’s recent activity and the new confidence of the syndicate suggest some small—but significant—beginnings of change in the state press.
Maurice Chammah is a 2011-2012 U.S. Fulbright Fellow and a writer based in Cairo. He reports for The Daily News Egypt and maintains a blog, Adrift on the Nile.