CNN’s Inside the Middle East Features IRI’s Egypt Poll

Egypt’s media tests new-found freedom
CNN’s Inside the Middle East
From Rima Maktabi and Neil Curry

CAIRO, EGYPT (CNN) — While the world’s eyes watched protesters in Tahrir Square in the run up to Egypt’s revolution, state television — based just down the road — showed tranquil images of boats on the Nile.

It was largely left to independent media to risk state reprisals for reporting what was really going on in the days before the fall of former president, Hosni Mubarak.

Now both independent and state media are testing their new-found freedom in post-revolutionary Egypt.

New management at Egyptian State Television are trying to re-establish the channel’s credibility and viewing figures, introducing political debates to the schedules and changing the mindset of journalists who are not used to challenging authority.

Nihal Kamal, Head of Egypt State TV, said: “Egyptian State TV lost its credibility during the period of the revolution because the TV building is only 500 meters away from Tahrir Square, during the revolution the channel’s camera was reporting on the tranquility of the Nile and the boats sailing in the river and ignored the revolution at Tahrir Square when all the other channels were reporting on the revolution.”

Although the channel is still answerable to the military government, Kamal said management had not received any instructions from above.

“Programs air freely and it’s left to the presenter to decide who to talk to and what to talk about,” she said.

Much has been made of the role of social networking in Egypt’s revolution, but traditional media also shaped — and has been shaped by — events in Tahrir Square.

A recent poll conducted by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute suggested that most people turned to television rather than social media for their news during the revolution, with Facebook accounting for as little as 6%.

Two presenters of the independent television channel ONTV, Reem Maged and Yosri Fouda, have become celebrities since hosting an explosive debate in March which resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. He stepped down next day after a series of angry outbursts on the show provoked a strong public backlash.

Maged said: “This episode will remain forever in the Egyptian media CV, the pilot of a kind of debate which has to take place in the future. A prime minister on air debating — not fighting hopefully — with extreme opposition.”

Fouda added: “The mood of the whole country has changed. People for the first time have really broken the fear barrier and I think this is the main thing, not only when it comes to media but indeed when it comes to everything else.

“I’m really heartened by the fact that teenagers now look for political programs to follow.”

ONTV competes for viewers in an independent market with newcomers such as Tahrir TV, formed by a group of journalists protesting in Tahrir Square.

New radio stations have sprung up on the internet to make use of greater freedom in recent months. The small team behind Radio Ta7rir recruits volunteers and begs and borrows studio time to record its mix of revolutionary music and political satire.

Wael Omar, Co-founder Ta7rir Radio, said: “We wanted to do something that’s immediate and taps into the spirit of Tahrir.

“There is this window of freedom that has been opened but we’re not sure, the situation is very dynamic. Every day there’s reporters and TV personalities and journalists who are called in to the military tribunal for questioning because they’ve released something.

“We’ve been told time and again that the military is a red line, so it seems like they’re going back to the same psychology that was imposed on us before.”

Newspapers have long been an important source of information for Egyptians, the daily newspaper Al-Ahram dates back to 1875. But since the revolution things have changed for the print press too.

Almasry Al-Youm is now the country’s largest independent newspaper, claiming readership of more than 500,000.

The paper’s editors had frequent run-ins with the Mubarak regime and during the protests in Tahrir Square staff slept at the newspaper office and its print factory to defy Government threats and continue publication.

Magdy El Galad, Editor-in-Chief of Almasry Al Youm, said: “Every day we would publish in the morning and not know whether or not we would publish again tomorrow.

“The pressure on us would increase as voices of the writers, opinions and articles became more fierce in confronting the rigidity of the authority and dictatorship and tyranny.”

However, El Galad admitted the paper was still not entirely free of political interference. He said: “I don’t deny that there are still pressures, and that the current government and the Military Council are putting some pressure on the media, but it is not on the same level as what was practiced by the previous regime.”

Yasmine Shehata, Editor-in-Chief of Enigma, a luxury lifestyle magazine, said: “In my opinion the most exciting change since the revolution has been in media. This is where we felt the freedom immediately, even during the days of the revolution before Mubarak stepped down.

She added: “So now instead of focusing on celebrities and businessmen we are focusing on media men and women because they’re the ones shaping our country, shaping popular opinion.

“They’re the new stars of the country — and of the Middle East in fact — because a lot of these channels and publications get read all over the world. It’s an amazing time to be in the media.”

Up ArrowTop