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The Egyptian media: A crisis of credibility | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Despite the huge number of Egyptian newspapers and television channels, and the cut-throat competition taking place between Egyptian media outlets to present information and news reports to the public from different perspectives, it appears as if the Egyptian media is today facing a new crisis.

The media sector was one of those that benefitted the most from the 25 January revolution, with new satellite television channel and newspapers being established in the wake of the Egyptian revolution. This was after an arsenal of laws had been put in place over 30 years of Mubarak’s rule restricting media freedoms. Surprisingly, this sudden media openness has raised questions about the professionalism of the Egyptian media, with observers and experts saying that the Egyptian media is suffering a crisis of credibility.

This is something that was clear to see in a number of news reports that have caused crises and cast a pall over the Egyptian political arena which – according to a group of observers – is “extremely tense and susceptible to rumours.” The most recent tension was caused by an alleged statement attributed to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about Washington possibly deploying troops to protect Egyptian houses of worship. This news report was attributed to CNN and widely circulated by several Egyptian news websites and newspapers before being denied by the US embassy in Cairo.

After the Egyptian media was accused of being responsible for inciting several incidents of sectarian violence in Egypt, Asharq Al-Awsat took the decision to take a closer look at the media in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Editor-in-Chief of Egypt’s “Al-Mussawar” magazine, Helmi al-Namnam, stressed that the key to good reporting is reliable sources, saying that it is imperative that a journalist bases their reports on reliable sources of information, particularly during this period when there is a lack of professional journalism in Egypt and which has resulted in the creation of an environment where unsubstantiated rumours can be easily spread. He added that this is something that has affected local Egyptian media, as well as international news reporting.

Giving an example of the poor professional journalistic standards that can be found in the Egyptian media today, al-Namnam pointed to the recent news story about the wealth of a certain Egyptian public figure. He said “this news spread like wildfire in the wake of the revolution. There are established rules with regards to journalism, but unfortunately nobody takes the trouble to review these. When reporting a news item like this, a journalist should contact the concerned person as well as the Illicit Gains Authority [to corroborate the news]. This is the obvious thing to do.”

The Editor-in-Chief of the “Al-Mussawar” magazine stressed that “it is better to lose a scoop then to have to issue a correction later.” Al-Namnam also claimed that the real problem with the Egyptian media is the lack of professional journalists, claiming that many news items in Egyptian and Arab newspapers are nothing more than re-hashed and badly translated foreign news reports.

Dr. Mahmoud Alam al-Din, Professor of Journalism at Cairo University, said that the state of confusion that currently exists in Egypt is due to the Egyptian media complying with the rules of the “new media.” Professor Alam al-Din said that online applications like blogs, social networking websites, and citizen journalism, are suspicious sources of information that are being utilized by the more “traditional” media.

He said “with the development of the situation on the ground and the spread of false information, journalists find themselves facing a difficult situation and may find themselves victims to this, particularly if they use the new media as a source of information.” He added “the new media has placed the older media in a difficult position; we are in a new era that necessitates the annulment of all classical traditional media rules.”

Dr. Alam al-Din also noted that during periods of major social upheaval and revolution, there is always a lot of confusion and misinterpretation in the media. Official statements are issued then withdrawn in accordance with the responses that they provoke, whilst other statements are issued in the context of a propaganda war with the objective of supporting specific interests.

Alam al-Din divided media outlets and their means of conveying news reports into two schools: there is the “School of Distance” which sacrifices story and scoops for the sake of preserving the newspaper’s reputation. The newspapers that belong to this school of journalism takes their time checking on the accuracy of its news stories. Then there is the “School of the Moment” which seeks to satisfy the desire of millions of readers by grabbing scoops and running whatever news stories they can, and if the accuracy of this news report is open to question, then the newspaper promptly denies or refutes this.”

As for how newspapers and media outlets can avoid this, Dr. Alam al-Din said “firstly, it is vital that the rationality of the news report is examined. Secondly, the news reports source and credibility should be traced. Thirdly, a search for other corroborative sources must be conducted to find out if this is a fabricated news story or a (deliberate or accidental) rumour. It is also important to put the story in the general context of society at large.”

Whilst Managing Editor of Egypt’s al-Shorouk newspaper, Wael Kandil, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he agreed with al-Namnam’s viewpoint, stressing that “I prefer to ignore a story rather than surrender to the temptation of competition to get a scoop [if the story is in doubt].” He stressed that this leads to disaster and has dangerous consequences for the media at large. He also stressed that it is important that media use terms like “allegedly” and “unverified” to spare the newspaper any embarrassment or suspicion that it is spreading rumours.

Kandil asserted that “Professionalism and ethics are inseparable. It is essential that a newspaper maintains a moral balance. We, at al-Shorouk newspaper, have a moral framework governing the publishing process.”

Alluding to the widespread confusion that has broken out in the Egyptian media following the revolution, Kandil said “some are counting on the absence of supervisory bodies. We are facing a deluge of corruption and embezzlement legal cases in the wake of the revolution. However newspapers should not be carried away by the complaints lodged by lawyers against people accused of corruption. We have to wait until the public prosecution orders the launching of an investigation into a certain case before publishing anything about this, whilst also protecting the reputation of the persons involved.”

Kandil then cited the incident of the death of the Egyptian Muslim banker and the unsubstantiated reports that he was killed during the Coptic demonstrations earlier this month outside the Maspero building. The Managing Editor of Egypt’s al-Shorouk newspaper said “this story was reported by all [Egyptian] websites and newspapers, including al-Shorouk – which is not exempt from blame – but it was eventually revealed that there was some family discord which led to his death.”

With respect to journalists sourcing news from social networking websites like Facebook or Twitter, and how credible such sources of information are, Kandil told Asharq Al-Awsat “I regard such information as being raw material for news or rather draft news. It has to be examined from every angle. Those who post such information must be traced and we must make sure that their accounts are valid and fabricated.”

Asharq al-Awsat also spoke with Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, Abdul Hakim al-Aswani who said that this state of media confusion excised even prior to the revolution, but has grown significantly following the ouster of the Mubarak regime. He attributed this to the environment that previously governed Egyptian journalism, namely media restrictions and constraints which led to journalists resorting to using anonymous and unsubstantiated sources and information.

Al-Aswani stressed that “following the revolution, we received dozens of daily complaints about corruption cases, but took a decision not to publish this information before these cases are referred to court so as to limit the exchanges of accusation.” He also claimed that Egyptian newspapers are now trying to put an end to news reports attributed to unnamed or anonymous sources, saying “we [now] count on the journalist to verify the information…and contact several sources to ensure that the report is as accurate as possible.”

Al-Aswani also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “prior to the 25 January revolution, the Egyptian Supreme Press Council issued a report revealing that 49.9 percent of quotes reported by the Egyptian media were attributed to unknown or anonymous sources.”

He added that “the recurring question that we face every day at the Al-Masry Al-Youm news desk is how to maintain the accuracy of our news report and document our information. Therefore, we posted copies of our editing criteria for news items everywhere in order to instil the principles of objectivity and accuracy into our editors to help them choose from among the huge amount of information that we received and only publish documented news reports that are of interest to the reader.”

Al-Aswani says that “at Al-Masry al-Youm, we keep away from rumours, scandals and unknown or anonymous sources. We sacrifice such news, even if we lose the scoop, to preserve the newspaper’s credibility. This has always been our priority.”

Concerning the alleged Clinton statement about the Maspero protesters, al-Aswani said “many [Egyptian] media outlets were swept away by this alleged statement. In such cases, it is easy to certify the news; all you have to do is check reliable news sources or check the official US State Department website or contact the US State Department directly.”

In the same context, Sonia Dabous, Media Professor at the American University in Cairo and Assistant Editor of Egypt’s al-Akhbar al-Yom newspaper, agreed with the previous viewpoints. She stressed the importance of journalists not getting carried away by rumours, and applying the journalist’s code of ethics to their reporting. Dabous also said that it was important that any news editor who publishes unconfirmed news and which incites violence or civil strife be held accountable for their actions.

In the event of that a newspaper or media outlet makes a mistake, Editor-in-Chief of Egypt’s “Al-Mussawar” magazine, Helmi al-Namnam stressed that “it is vital that the newspaper investigates the source of the mistake. Was it a translation error or the result of partisanship or bias on the part of the editor? If it turns out it was an error in translation, the editor responsible should be referred to specialized training. However if this mistake turns out to be deliberate, the editor responsible should be fired immediately!”