Kareem Farid: Egyptian Media’s Warring Factions
March 14, 2014
While I was in bed, hoping to sleep as long as possible to rid myself of my exhaustion, I was suddenly shocked by the sound of continuous gunfire outside the window. Naturally, I got up in a rush to see what was going on.
Looking outside, I saw al-Qaeda’s black flags mixed in with yellow flags bearing the four-fingered “Raba’a” logo adopted by the supporters of ousted President Muhammad Morsi. The people carrying the flags were swarming out of a street near my house, surrounded by crowds of people chanting “Thugs deserve no recompense!” Their chants were mixed in with the ongoing sound of gunfire.
I quickly picked up my camera and started filming. By then, the sound of gunfire had stopped, though the chanting continued. I could also hear the voice of a man being blared from microphones carried in the cars leading the march. The voice sounded like it was loaded with threats to those so-called “thugs,” crying “People of the neighborhood! Either you cleanse yourselves of [the thugs] or we’ll take care of them ourselves!” This was followed by chants from his supporters against the “thugs,” saying that they [the supporters] deserved revenge—in essence, that killing them was justified.
Police cars started to arrive, and most of the protesters then scattered. A few, however, stayed behind, exchanging gunfire with the police for a few minutes before they escaped and the police retreated. This is when I stopped filming and walked down to the street to try to figure out what had happened from some of the witnesses. They told me about a scuffle that started between some of the area’s residents and some of the protesters. The scuffle then escalated to a gunfight, with the residents using homemade weapons and the Muslim Brotherhood supporters using automatic weapons and shotguns.
Since, as luck would have it, I am a journalist whose job it is to uncover the truth and show the full picture to those interested in seeing it, I tried to convey in words what I was not able to capture on camera. This is when the campaign of insults and accusations of treason against me started on social media—which can so very quickly turn into “mass insult media” whenever presenting any content that touches upon either of the main parties in Egypt’s polarized political scene. I tried to convey the truth, but the drums of war were much louder, with Egyptians split into three fronts: supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood; supporters of presidential candidate Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi; and those who oppose both of them (though their numbers do not really qualify them as a full-fledged front). Members of the third group are often trampled by the two other factions, entrenching the concept of “those who are not with us are against us.”
“Based on the initial testimonies and other evidence we’ve gathered, there seems to be little doubt the security forces have been acting with blatant disregard for human life, and full investigations that are both impartial and independent are urgently needed,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International.
In this statement on the clearing of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in the Raba’a and Nahda Squares, Luther added: “While some protesters used violence, the authorities’ response was grossly disproportionate, seemingly not differentiating between violent and non-violent protesters. Bystanders were also caught-up in the violence.
What happened on August 14, 2013, can only be described as a “massacre.” Under extreme external pressure, however, many media outlets ignored the vast numbers of victims. According to Amnesty International, the count of deaths by the night of August 14 had reached 600.
Most journalists did not even stop at ignoring the victims—some of whom were fellow journalists themselves, such as Sky News Arabia cameraman Mick Dean—and adopted the state’s language of extreme violence towards citizens. They also engaged in a campaign of accusations of treason against anyone who objected to the spilling of so much Egyptian blood that day, regardless of their political affiliation. These objectors were smeared by the media even before the emergence of a broad, public frenzy against anyone opposing the transitional authority’s policies.
This incident was just the first of many, though, that would expose the divisions between media personalities. It also revealed the reality that certain parts of the Egyptian media had, in my opinion, turned themselves into tools used by the state to spread theories of international conspiracies against Egypt and to fight any voice calling for the respect of human rights.
This phase may very well have been the worst in the history of the Egyptian media, involving the celebration of those calling for the mass execution of a large group of Egyptians, the incitement of violence against refugees, and the demonization of whole nations with which we have geographic, cultural, and religious ties. This was all done by entities that were publicly open to supporting the established authorities and that pushed public opinion to support government actions that contravened all international human rights agreements.
At the other end of the spectrum, we saw Brotherhood-affiliated media outlets engage in their own excesses, destroying any potential for a neutral viewer to receive the information and interact well with it. The starkest example of this behavior was the exaggerated number of casualties propagated by Morsi supporters during the breaking up of the Raba’a sit-in—indeed, they were so exaggerated that they became the subject of open ridicule.
During this time, I was working as an editor for a semi-daily talk show, and my direct boss was respected as one of the pillars of Egyptian journalism. While planning out the topics and guests for future episodes, we had a number of disagreements over who to speak with and what to talk about. Sometimes, he would outright refuse to host certain guests, claiming that the timing was not right to feature them or that they were too broadly disliked by the general public.
For example, during an interview after the Constitutional Assembly had started its meetings, we had an argument after I objected to the Assembly’s approval of a constitutional article that would allow for civilians to be tried in the military court system. I held that such an arrangement goes against a civilian’s right to be tried before a civilian judge, while my supervisor’s argued that such an article was necessary and appropriate; he also indicated that such clauses are present in the constitutions of a number of “advanced” countries. Shortly after this, the military arrested Sinai journalist Ahmed Abu-Dera’a, accused him of publishing false news that negatively affected the army, and arranged a military trial for him.
With this case, the debate between us was reignited, and I demanded that, due to its importance, the concept of military trials for civilians had to be addressed and put up to an objective discussion on our show. My boss actually apologized for his earlier stance and promised to dedicate a whole episode to the topic. This did happen, but only after the topic was made general enough to avoid addressing the armed forces negatively. We would also make no clear objection to their harassment of journalists and violations of their rights, as seen in the cases of Abu-Dera’a and Mohamed Sabry. The show also skirted the topic of journalists being transferred to criminal trials, as was the case for al-Jazeera team members Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Abdullah Elshamy.
The debates and justifications for not addressing specific issues spread into other areas as well. Another such case was that of the suffocation deaths of 38 prisoners being transferred in a van near the Abu-Za’abal Prison. The media rushed to broadcast that the prisoners died after an escape attempt aided by armed Muslim Brotherhood members, who allegedly attacked the police convoy. This story was confirmed by unnamed sources, and all the pro-regime media started defending the police and affirming the necessity of killing the prisoners for trying to escape. Meanwhile, the pro-Brotherhood media started a counter-rumor war to show what happened as a massacre, greatly exaggerating the number of victims and the manner in which they died.
With the rising rate of bombings and terrorist attacks as well as the increased commonality of violence spreading from the security services reactions to Muslim Brotherhood rallies, many areas in Egypt have become danger zones, especially for journalists. The number of journalist deaths and arrests has also gone up, the latest case being that of Mayada Ashraf. Her death brought the toll of journalist who died while on assignment up to 11 since January 2011. This has naturally resulted in fewer channels of information and imagery, making it harder to cover events and turning any journalist—Egyptian or foreign—into an easy target for the warring factions, both of which seem to hate the truth and want only to show their side of the story.
“Animosity towards foreign journalists has reached a point where any foreigner carrying a camera is attacked by throngs of angry protesters.” Patrick Kingsley – Egypt Correspondent – The Guardian
“No journalist, regardless of their leanings, should become the target of acts of violence, terror, or politicized legal action. Journalists must have protection and must be allowed to carry out their work in Egypt freely.” Jen Psaki – Spokesperson – US Department of State
In the end, the rights of a dead journalist are lost between the lines of newspapers and websites, with every outlet absolving its patron and blaming the other party. This all occurs amidst the failure of the Journalists’ Syndicate to defend its members by providing them with physical or legal protection. The climate for journalism has deteriorated so much that Egypt is now ranked 159th (out of 180 countries) in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Seemingly every party is trying to paint an incomplete image of the situation in Egypt, an image that supports their pre-existing views. One example of this behavior is al-Jazeera’s support of Muslim Brotherhood-inclined citizen journalists with $2-4,000 payments for live feeds of pro-Morsi rallies; such payments skirt the professional or moral considerations that must be at the heart of journalistic work (the most basic of which center on the objectivity of coverage and the use of only trained journalist to cover conflicts).
In the midst of this power struggle, the Egyptian citizen has become the plaything of the various media outlets. Many minds have turned to laziness, refusing to seek the truth or to accept any opposing opinion outside of their understanding of the “war on terror” or the “restoration of legitimacy.” A strong and honest media sector is needed more than ever in this environment, but it is all but impossible to see one emerging any time soon.