The politics of silence

Those looking to view coverage from a critical and professional talk show presenter on Egyptian television had a few choices just a few months ago. There were few who dared to cover the upheaval and social issues with significant authority and a consistent moral stance while most of the country’s media was silent, but the option was still there.

Now, amid a cacophony of nationalism, those who were speaking with such vigor are now mostly silent, and the choices for viewers are essentially nil. Whether out of confusion, prudence, or censorship — corporate or otherwise — critical voices stayed off the airwaves, but are now slowly returning to television screens.

“We’ll come back and take a stance!” television satirist Bassem Youssef said as he gave his team a pep talk in the opening skit of his return episode late last month. When one of the staff points out that this is easier said than done, Youssef slaps him, telling him to shut up.

“We’re coming back,” he says, appearing obviously nervous. “We might be afraid but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Explaining to the public why his show, Al-Bernameg, had been off air since July, Youssef cited the death of his mother as a life-shaking event from which he needed time to recover. But the episode’s beginning gives insight into the questions that were on his, and viewers’, minds. Is it better to be cautious, and consequently quiet? Or, is it more important to speak and navigate the dangerous straits of public discourse?

The answer that Youssef and others have come to is to split the difference. Despite the opening skit’s implication that hiatus should be interpreted as not taking a stance, the question is more complex than that. Arguably, silence in itself is a position, a refusal to lend credence to the echo chamber of support for the prevailing narrative.

There is something paradoxical about articulating a position through silence, and the approach is less intrepid than doing so by speaking — it is ambiguous and deniable in the way that Youssef’s return episode was not.

When Al-Bernameg came back on air, the content struck a cautious tone. While it did not toe the line and pointed to the humorous aspects of Egyptians’ relationship with power and politics today, there was a sense that the writers felt they needed to hedge their position in order to stay on the air. They ignored state violence against protesters, and didn’t criticize Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in stark contrast to the satire directed against Morsi. Commentators described the first episode as a candid and intelligent negotiation with the current conditions. Despite this, the show was canceled by the host network.

Another television host known for taking a critical and independent line, Yosri Fouda, told his team shortly after Morsi was forced out of office that he was going on a six-month medical vacation so he could recover from a car accident. All members of his staff that spoke with Mada Masr said Fouda’s decision was medical in nature and had no ties to the political situation, and that the political context at the time was purely coincidental.

Regardless, his absence coincided with media presenters walking in lockstep with the prevailing mood, and with the public seemingly without an appetite for conflicting messages. Fouda has previously refused to go on his show, Akher Kalam, when faced with the prospect of censorship. In October 2011, ONtv refused to let him interview then-military critic Alaa al-Aswany. Fouda would not go on air until Aswany accompanied him.

“This is my form of self-censorship. I have the choice between saying the truth or nothing at all,” he wrote in a statement on his Facebook page at the time.

The inevitable pressures of the media and political environment at such a polarized time pose a significant threat to Fouda’s reputation. As a presenter considered one of the fairest voices in Egyptian media, a lack of candor could cost him the trust of his audience.

For a career journalist, especially one with a strong editorial line like Fouda, the decision to go silent wasn’t a final one — it simply deferred the decision of when to come back on the air. Fouda decided last month to renew his contract with ONtv, and will return to the presenters’ chair at the end of this month.

“The situation made it complicated for him,” says Ahmed Soliman, a producer with Akher Kalam. “He wanted to take a decision, and he saw what happened in the media. But finally he contracted with ONtv.”

Rasha Abdalla, a professor of Media Studies at the American University in Cairo, emphasizes that voices like that of Fouda and Reem Maged, a presenter of Beladna Belmasry, another talk show on ONtv, were of incredible importance and consequence. During her time at Baladna Belmasry, Maged, also known for taking an independent and at times unpopular line, held an interview that many credited with the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. She pushed boundaries to the point of being subjected to a military summons.

“Most media is monotone, it’s pro-army, it has almost a propaganda kind of tone, and it doesn’t serve the public for opinions to be said in the form of facts,” she says. “When Reem and Yosri were around, things were slightly more balanced, but to be honest the whole media scene was more balanced, so that makes their presence more important today.”

Soliman says that coming back doesn’t mean sacrificing the coverage people are used to, and says that the newsroom conversations don’t even consider “red lines.”

“I think now the situation is different,” Soliman says. “It’s not the same as three months ago. For Yosri, at any channel he joins he’ll say what happened. I think he will say the truth.”

Osama al-Gamasy, a blogger and satirist, also points to the economic issues behind silence.

“This issue has two parts. Even if a presenter has a point of view that opposes the regime, he (or she) will definitely be against public opinion, which is largely brainwashed. And this presenter will be very keen not to lose his audience. The second is that the majority of private channels are owned by businessmen associated with the Hosni Mubarak regime, so it’s logical [that they would stop talking].”

In the run up to Morsi’s ouster, most private television channels’ coverage encouraged people to protest, and since he was forced from office, most coverage has been overtly sympathetic and supportive to the military.

Albert Shafiq, the director of ONtv, did not respond to requests for comment.

Gamasy, who used to be a researcher with a prominent television presenter, declined to comment on the controversy surrounding Youssef’s show specifically, and he said doesn’t think these economic factors should be on presenters’ minds.

“If they have a real message and have real values, they should have talked during this time, and shaken up society with their message. But this subject [the decision to go off-air] has some political and economic considerations.”

Fouda is well aware of these. In an interview with the privately-owned Al-Shorouk newspaper earlier this month, he refused to categorically classify the Muslim Brotherhood members as terrorists, despite ONtv’s editorial policy, the political views of the channel’s viewership, and the precedent of CBC’s suspension of Youssef’s show. He said his responsibilities were bigger than to his host network.

“From a patriotic perspective, we desperately need to put a quick end to the deterioration of the social fabric in Egypt. This is bigger and more dangerous than a power struggle,” he said.

On the other side of the spectrum is the decision to simply stay silent. While Youssef came back only to be silenced, and Fouda will return to the television with a declared intent of defiance, Reem Maged, and Beladna Belmasry, are still off the air. A producer with the show declined to comment on the end of Beladna Belmasry, and Maged was not available for comment.

Additional reporting by Mohamad Salama Adam


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