Some satellite television channels and internet websites recently re-aired a bitter argument between a well-known Egyptian TV anchor, and the former Egyptian Minister of Information. The argument highlighted the extent to which the media’s relationship with the former regime has declined. On the internet, you can watch video clips of a famous Egyptian talk show, in programs dated prior to the fall of the Mubarak regime, and you can also study footage of the same program after the revolution. The contradiction in the presenter’s attitudes, before and afterwards, is a source of great entertainment.
Egyptian and Arab public opinion has been preoccupied with closely monitoring this turnaround in the Egyptian press and media, following the overthrow of the regime by the January 25th youth revolution. Now the media has become a key issue in the ongoing debates about the post-Mubarak era. However, last week the issue of media censorship surfaced once again, after a television program criticising the performance of Egypt’s current Prime Minister was prevented from a repeat airing.
These are indications that the Egyptian media, which was entirely under the thumb of the former regime, is now trying to catch up with the revolutionaries. This transformation will not come about smoothly, and it certainly wont be rapid, or without its obstacles. It is not easy to convince roughly 46,000 employees, working in state-owned radio and television buildings in Cairo, to adopt a new liberal, independent way of thinking overnight, after many decades of practicing a policy of censorship, authoritarianism and corruption. It is not easy to talk about an independent and impartial media in Egypt, without falling into the trap of sensationalism, and internal bickering.
Following the Tahrir Square uprising, minor revolutions have now broken out within the Egyptian media. Just as the country itself is going through a transitional phase, under the auspices of the armed forces, official media outlets are undergoing a similar process. The aim is to rid the media of its chronic decay, resulting from a blend of deep-rooted corruption and censorship, which in turn undermined the role that journalists are supposed to play in society.
Today, censorship still exists in Egypt, evidence of which can be seen in the almost universally positive media portrayal of the [ruling] armed forces, whereby the role of the Egyptian media has been limited to praising their performance. This undoubtedly helps the military avoid any sense of accountability, whilst such accountability is necessary to guarantee the integrity of the current transitional period, and consolidate the principles of freedom of expression, and an independent media, which were both demands of the January 25th Revolution. The Tunisian media has also adopted such a policy, and the Libyan media will inevitably follow suit.
The outcomes of both the Tunisian and Egyptian popular revolutions, along with what the Libyan revolution is trying to achieve, concern us all as representatives of the Arab media. Despite all our accomplishments, we have failed to produce one single Arab media outlet that is truly independent.
Perhaps lessons drawn from the Egyptian media experience will be useful for countries suffering similar crises. If media outlets broke from the tradition of adopting an overwhelming bias for whoever is in power at the time, then they would be spared the repercussions that follow, when such countries are hit by successful movements for change. Those who staunchly defended the Egyptian regime before it was overthrown now hang their heads in shame, and will never manage to redeem themselves.
Let’s hope other Arab journalists and writers heed a warning from what has happened.