by Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung*
In an op-ed published in the New York Times last April, we took a cautiously optimistic view on the possibility of a breakthrough for media freedom in post-Mubarak Egypt. We argued that if state-controlled media, especially television, underwent serious reform, it would tip the balance toward an open information landscape, particularly when combined with the revolution in online social media in the country.
Social media have steadily deepened their imprint on Egyptian society and politics, despite the fact that bloggers and other new media practitioners continue to pay a very high price for their activities.
Hopes for an overhaul of state television, however, have been dashed by the military leadership, which is using the medium as an instrument of political manipulation. In this respect, as in some others, Egypt has fallen back into old habits.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body that took over after longtime president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, has directed harsh state media campaigns against civil society, routinely portraying democracy activists as foreign-backed troublemakers. It has also curbed the airing of diverse views on news and discussion programs, and more generally blocked the path for reforms in key areas of the media sector. In the run-up to the anniversary of Mubarak’s resignation, state media have warned activists against provocative steps, while claiming that the military would serve to protect the nation.
A recent example of this backsliding is the creation of the so-called National Military Media Committee, a body of 11 generals that will be responsible for providing information about the military to journalists and counteracting what it considers “biased coverage.”
Such retrograde actions have been all the more disappointing given the signs early last year that real progress might be in the offing. One of the first steps taken after Mubarak’s ouster was the elimination of the position of information minister on February 22, 2011. With this move, Egypt became one of just three countries in the Middle East and North Africa, along with Qatar and Lebanon, that lacked an information minister, a post that is typically associated with censorship and propaganda.
In July, however, the position was restored, and throughout the second half of 2011, taboos on the discussion of certain subjects—with criticism of the SCAF topping the list—were reestablished in state media. At least five state television and radio presenters have been taken off the air or confronted with prosecution for testing the limits of permissible speech.
The overall effects of the SCAF’s media policies were apparent in the state outlets’ disastrous coverage of a violent crackdown on an October protest at the Maspero media complex in Cairo, in which over two dozen Coptic Christian protesters were killed. During the incident, state television seemed to incite violence against the demonstrators, portraying them as the aggressors in a clash with the authorities.
Some of the staff at state television, for their part, is expressing deep grievances with ongoing censorship. On January 22, a strike was initiated by employees at state-run Nile News TV due to the restrictive editorial policies and pro-regime bias still in place. A video reportedly shows a number of employees at the state television building engaging in a protest.
Last spring, while acknowledging the early momentum for media reform, we argued that any gains achieved in the immediate aftermath of a dictator’s ouster should not be taken for granted. Some perspective on the challenge of state media reform in such settings can be found in the Soviet collapse some two decades ago. The Soviet Union’s last days featured pressure from below for greater freedom of expression and independent news reporting, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s embrace of glasnost effectively loosened the overweening control of the Soviet system. For a time, it seemed that an authentic and robust Fourth Estate might emerge.
But in the tumultuous environment of 1990s Russia, the media were forced to navigate a variety of new threats that curtailed their freedom in practice. Among other problems, many outlets became the instruments of powerful business and political interests.
Today, in Russia and many other former Soviet republics, authoritarian elements have been able to regroup, consolidate political power, and exercise new forms of state-led control over the media. State outlets in Russia and other authoritarian countries in the region remain influential and often dominant sources of news and information of political consequence. While the analogy is not a perfect fit, this outcome should be taken as a cautionary tale by analysts and policymakers focused on current events in the Arab world.
It is true that even before Mubarak’s departure, the power of state media was on the decline in Egypt, with younger audiences in particular migrating to the internet and various satellite television stations. State television suffered an even greater loss of credibility during the uprising, deceptively playing old video of an empty Tahrir Square even as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered to demand the fall of the regime. And a number of licenses for new channels were issued over the course of 2011, potentially increasing the diversity of information available to the population.
Nevertheless, state television continues to act as a drag on Egypt’s democratic aspirations. Young, tech-savvy activists may consider it a risible anachronism, but it remains an influential news source for a considerable segment of Egyptian society that does not use new media, and that could take comfort in the current leadership’s sanitized message of stability after a year of turmoil.
* Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Walker can be followed on Twitter @Walker_CT.