The roots of Egypt’s biased press
by Abdallah Schleifer
The sharp political polarization in Egypt during former President Mursi’s one year in office, and in the months that have followed his ouster, has intensified the polemical tone of Egyptian journalism. And by journalism, I mean the work of the reporter and the correspondent, not the columnist or the the Op-Ed writer.
But that polemical tone, or to use a broader language that partisan tone, long predates Mursi’s presidency, the Arab Spring or even the introduction of the printing press in early 19th century Cairo.
The roots go back to one of two different contesting forms of journalism, ongoing since its formative years in Europe – to the 16th century Italian poet, playwright and inventor of modern literary pornography Pietro Arentino, who can be considered the father of partisan investigative journalism. And on the other hand, to the late 18th and 19th century merchants, industrialists and financers for whom objective journalism was of a utilitarian necessity, particularly for the export-minded concerned with goods or investment capital.
If civil war raged in France, what mattered for the British merchant was to know whether the port of Calais was still under siege, or the siege had been lifted, regardless of where his sympathies lay, be it with the besieged or the besiegers. What mattered was whether he should or should not resume shipping textiles to France via Calais.
Indeed the Rothchilds’ used carrier pigeons to move news as fast as possible from the continent to England, for as one of the Rothschilds remarked: “When a city is under siege buy; when the siege ends, sell.”
Quite separate in development from objective reporting, and thus reinforcing objective journalism’s fundamental assumption that news should be detached from opinion, were the essays by Addison and Steele in their journal, the early 19th century Spectator, which still lives on as a lively British weekly magazine of opinion.
But, back in the 16th century, Arentino published chronicles and he would use the threat of publishing stories of the scandalous private behaviour of princes and high ranking clergy as a vehicle for blackmail. Either he was paid off or he published. Aretino in his own way was a “partisan,” known as” the scourge of princes.” And we can see how, logically-speaking, Aretino’s barely more refined heirs were the rag-tag gutter journalists of 18th century Paris. Partisans, whose focus on the wayward activities of the king and royal court, were a major force in promoting the eventual revolution.
Roots of journalism in Egypt
In 19th century Egypt, the predominant European cultural influence was French, reinforced by the flight of Lebanese-Syrian journalists to Egypt (in the case of the Taqla brothers who founded newspaper al-Ahram). So, the nature of Egyptian journalism tended has tended, from the beginning, to be partisan. When the press was nationalized by Gamal Abdul Nasser in the early years of the Egyptian Revolution, the partisan nature of Egyptian journalism increased. It was inspired, at that point, by the Soviet example of state ownership of the press and the resulting manipulation of Russian journalism.
So, even though privately owned independent newspapers were tolerated in the last decades of Mubarak’s presidency, most of the journalists who staffed these papers were hired away from the state press and they brought state-press values to the private press.
But Egyptians would begin to develop a sense of what objective journalism was all about with the emergence and popularity of Pan Arab satellite TV channels. First, the news bulletins of MBC, and then the Pan Arab satellite news channels, in particular al-Jazeera in its earliest years and subsequently Al Arabiya, which began broadcasting in 2002 when al-Jazeera had already begun to drift from its BBC-like model to partisan journalism. A new privately owned Egyptian satellite channel committed to objective journalism - Channel 25 - was launched the day Mubarak stepped down by Mohammad Gohar who had worked as a young cameraman for the NBC Cairo bureau and in the mid-seventies had then set up his own television production company, Video Cairo, serving a number of the many TV channels in Europe and the Americas who did not maintain bureaus in Cairo but relied on Gohar and the cameramen he had trained because of his familiarity with what had become international standards of TV journalism.
It was Gohar who was at Tahrir Square covering the demonstrations from Jan. 25, 2011, onwards. He decided to set up his own TV station – Channel 25 – by quickly recruiting and crash training his staff from among the youth demonstrating in Tahrir. The news readers and anchors were young and dressed with the informality of youth. Educated, middle aged Egyptians watching the news bulletins were reminded of their own children as well as struck by the lack of bias. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they declined the opportunity to debate with its opponents on the Channel25 talk shows which, in the absence of spokesmen for the Brotherhood and for Mursi and his cabinet, would naturally seem to favor the opposition.
Channel 25 quickly acquired a large audience because of its intensive field reporting but it was boycotted by advertisers. Channel 25 also had crews covering the Syrian civil war up on the front lines, accompanying rebel soldiers. Then, in the winter of 2012-2013, the Nilsesat satellite platform’s signal of Channel 25 was jammed whenever it was time for a news bulletin.
Perhaps it was the Syrian government doing the jamming, but much more likely it was Mursi and the Brotherhood. Gohar closed the channel down and left the country, effectively in exile.
Some broadcasters, like Sky, BBC and Al Arabiya, remained but there is a fleeting nature to television journalism – you hear and see it, but it comes and goes before the eyes with nothing tangible in one’s hand, unlike a printed newspaper to be read with the full concentration of the individual reader. Television news rarely gets this sort of attention, given the family settings of its audience and the inescapable distractions of family life.
My colleague at AUC and dean of mass communication studies of Arabic media, Dr. Hussein Amin, has argued for years that Egyptian media should have the sort of regulatory code that could curb at least the misrepresentation often involved in partisan journalism.. But back in 1998, Egypt’s Higher Council for Journalism had adopted a Code of Honor that admitted “the right of the reader to objective journalism that honestly attempts to reflect reality and the movement of events and the different opinions, and preserve each citizen’s right to comment on printed material and not being used in slandering, blackmailing falsely accusing or personal insults.” An impressive code even less applied in practice today than in 1996.
What is needed is a model. The quality press of the U.S. and the UK, while not perfect, could certainly provide such a model for a privately-owned daily newspaper that could counter the trend towards a more partisan and polemical media by the moral force of its example.
Cross published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”