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Closing media outlets is not the solution

To begin with, let me make it clear that I am not writing this article in defense of Al Jazeera, for I believe that in its coverage of the recent events in Egypt the channel has abandoned any standards of professional journalism it once upheld. The channel has committed frequent violations that are incompatible with any code of journalistic conduct, and which amount to incitement to violence and hatred, if not to murder. I have personally declined frequent calls for interviews on Al Jazeera’s channels in reaction to such low a standard of coverage.

Having said that however, we have to look at the media scene in Egypt from several perspectives, and apply the same standards to all media channels. If we do that, we realize that the decision to close down Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr (Live from Egypt) is futile and inefficient, and positions Egypt as a country that cracks down on freedom of thought and expression.

First, it is almost technically impossible to prevent Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr from beaming into the country. According to Tharwat Mekki, head of the Nilesat Company, the channel gets its footage from Egypt, but broadcasts from Qatar. Therefore, all the Egyptian government can afford to do is shut down the channel’s offices in Egypt and prevent the use of professional shooting or broadcasting equipment. However, as we all know, shooting footage, even with high definition quality, can now be done with any tablet or mobile phone. Granted, the quality of the image will be lower, but there will still be an image.

Now away from the raging emotions against the Muslim Brotherhood and anyone who takes their side (which are understandable and even justified under the current circumstances), why do some people want to close down Al Jazeera?

Some say that Al Jazeera threatens Egypt’s national security, which is of course a serious charge. But what is the definition of national security? Is Egypt’s national security so vulnerable that it’s threatened by a TV channel, even if this channel serves as the Qatari ministry of information? What are the kinds of information that, published or broadcast, constitute a threat to national security? According to the Global Principles on National Security and the Right to Information known as “The Tshwane Principles,” (a document drafted this year by 22 organizations and more than 500 experts from 70 countries around the world, including Egypt, in consultation with several institutions including the United Nations and Amnesty International), national security could be harmed by information pertaining to ongoing defense plans and their operational ability; the production, capabilities, or use of weapons and military systems, including communications systems; information about specific measures to safeguard the territory of the state, critical infrastructures, or critical national institutions; as well as information derived from or pertaining to intelligence services. Such information may legitimately be withheld in the interest of a state’s national security. However, what airs on Al Jazeera, including any errors of fact or information or any false testimonies, has nothing to do with these areas of information that constitute a threat to national security. Instead, they constitute other violations (that may be no less dangerous), incitement to hatred, violence, and religious strife. These are serious enough charges but they are not related to national security.

In fact, the Egyptian government’s statements regarding Al Jazeera did not speak of national security as justification of the decision to close down the channel. Instead, it stated that the channel was to be closed because it was “performing without legal or professional standards, and is not certified to work in Egypt.” The question is, why did the government let the channel work without a license for more than two and a half years and now wants to close it?

The government also said that the closure decision must be implemented because the channel has operated with no professional standards, and although I personally agree that the channel has lost its professional standards, this is not a legal reason to close it down. The fact is Al Jazeera is not the only channel operating with no professional standards; most of the media scene in Egypt today has unfortunately become so polarized that it has lost much of its professionalism. Let me remind you of the administrative decision issued not too long ago (which I was also against at the time) to close down Tawfik Okasha’s Al-Faraeen channel in response to so-called incitement against then President Mohamed Morsi and insulting the military. The decision was cheered by many at the time, but when the political scene changed, Okasha returned to the screen and was sometimes hailed as a national hero, even though the professional standards of the channel (or lack thereof) had not changed at all.

Now let’s look at the (partly true) accusations that Al Jazeera has incited hatred, violence, and religious strife. I am personally against the closure of media outlets, even if they commit such violations. You fight words with words, not by closing down a channel and stifling freedom of expression. But if we assume for a moment that these violations call for closure, let’s then apply these standards to all television channels and not only to channels that have political stances we do not agree with. I’m sure we all remember the veteran news anchor on the Egyptian satellite channel Al-Masriya, who on October 9, 2011 during the Maspero massacre, called upon the “good Samaritans” of Egypt to go down to the streets and defend their army against the Christians. No one called for closing down that channel! As a matter of fact, no one was even penalized for this grave violation, not the announcer, nor the head of the channel, nor the head of the news section. Al Jazeera is also now accused (correctly) of broadcasting false death tolls and false testimonies about the ongoing violence in Egypt. I’m sure we all remember the accusations on Egyptian television that martyr Khaled Saeed was a drug dealer rather than a political activist. I’m sure we remember the hilarious phone calls on news bulletins during the 18 days in 2011 saying that protesters in Tahrir were taking bribes, hot meals, and speaking “the English language.” I’m sure we remember the actor who came on television and said Tahrir was the scene of “complete sexual relations,” or the young female reporter who cried while giving a talk show interview about how the protesters were given money and trained in Serbia by Iran and Israel (both!), only for it to turn out that she was a colleague of the presenter and the whole interview was staged.

Again, I am against the closure of all media channels, and therefore I’m not calling for these channels to be closed down, but I am calling for those who committed these grave violations to be punished accordingly. Al Jazeera has similarly committed enough violations to erase any bright accomplishments it has achieved in the past, but I am still against the closure of the channel, and against applying double standards. This is a political decision in the first place. It is enforced today on Al Jazeera, and would be enforced tomorrow on the next channel that offers any opposition to the ruling regime.

We should focus on reforming our own media in Egypt, and then Al Jazeera won’t have any viewers. Popular boycotts and marginalization, not closure, are the solution.

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Rasha Abdulla