The country’s media apparatus is displaying an iron-willed determination to uphold the state narrative. Within a week, two major television talk show hosts have been muzzled by their stations, and on Sunday, the chief editors of Egypt’s major newspapers came together to announce their support, as well as a unified media strategy, for the state and its war on terror.
Friday’s deadly attacks in Sinai, which killed at least 33 security personnel, has led TV stations and media personalities to vocalize their support for the state and its “war on terrorism,” asserting that the media should prioritize playing a role in this war and give it precedence over all other considerations.
In their Sunday statement, the newspaper chiefs, including among others the editors of the state-owned Al-Ahram as well as privately owned Al-Shorouk, Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Watan, announced their “support for all measures taken by the state in combating terrorists and protecting national security.”
The head of Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate, Diaa Rashwan, was among the attendees of Sunday’s press meeting.
The press supremos used the statement to firmly reject the use of the media to cast doubt on the performance of state institutions, including the police, military and judiciary, which they say affects their performance.
They also pledged to “stop publishing statements that support terrorism and undermine state institutions directly or indirectly.”
The statement follows the sidelining of two high-profile talk show hosts in a week.
Last week, talk show host Wael al-Ebrashy’s episode was pulled off the air mid-show by Dream TV administration, after he criticized several ministers, and on Saturday, Al-Nahar station banned television host Mahmoud Saad from his nightly show, replacing him with journalist Khaled Salah with no explanation.
Salah also took part in Sunday’s editors meeting in his capacity as head of Youm7, a privately owned newspaper.
This recent wave of crackdowns, coupled with the hyper-nationalist statements coming from the media is indicative of the continuously shrinking space for media freedom in Egypt and the increased practice of self-censorship, says Rasha Abdulla, Associate Professor of journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.
But TV host Mohamed Sherdy, who called for the editors meeting, said media figures should act according to their nationalistic duty, which the current moment dictates. In Sherdy’s opinion, it is the media’s role to become a state tool in the war against terrorism.
Sherdy clarified that an abrupt commercial break during his show on Saturday, which was perceived as censorship, was a scheduled one. “We have to choose the right timing for certain topics and realize that this country is going through a war that all state institutions are taking part in, including the media,” Sherdy says.
Does criticizing the government violate a journalist’s nationalist duty during this time? Sherdy likens it to pointing out a broken window when someone is setting your house on fire.
Before censoring Saad, Al-Nahar satellite station issued a statement on Saturday announcing that it would enact major changes to its team of producers and presenters and would ban some guests who “promote concepts that demoralize the military.”
But Ahmed Harbeya, one of the producers of Saad’s show, told Aswat Masriya that the station banned Saad when he turned up for work, without giving any reasons.
Al-Nahar’s statement claimed that the concepts of freedom and democracy are now used to disguise positions that endanger Egypt’s national security, adding that this duty “imposes a historic role on the media against the scheme for the downfall of Egypt.”
The station also called those who criticize the military during such times “word terrorists.”
Abdulla argues that using this nationalistic duty as a pretext to abandon universal press freedoms is a dangerous trend that will deepen the problems faced by Egypt’s media.
“You end up with what we have now, a one-sided monotone type of message that you get from every single media outlet and the media turns into a propaganda machine, not professional journalism,” Abdulla says.
While being seen as a moderate media personality, Saad has recently criticized the government in several shows. Last week, he pulled up a picture of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with activists who are currently in jail, highlighting the contradiction in his position towards them previously and now.
Harbeya says Al-Nahar has not terminated its contract with Saad and that the latter is yet to determine his position. Saad could not be reached for a comment.
Salah, who replaced Saad on Saturday, said that the station decided to focus on news coverage during the show and chose him to do it, adding that he’s not aware of the station’s position towards Saad. The owner and manager of the station were both unavailable for comment.
Saad’s case is the most recent in a long history of silencing opposition voices that escalated with the removal of Morsi from power in July 2013 and seems to be widening its circle of targets.
Last week, Ebrashy was surprised by the cutting of his episode after he had discussed several critical issues, such as the deaths of school students due to negligence and the incident of a woman giving birth in the street after a hospital refused to admit her.
Ebrashy announced in a post on his Facebook page at the time that ministers had pressured the station to take him off air. He stopped his show in protest and only returned on Saturday after Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb intervened to aid reconciliation.
Gamal al-Barbary, Ebrashy’s assistant, said that after being approached by Mehleb about Ebrashy’s critical coverage, Dream TV owner Ahmed Bahgat asked him to tone his program down before unexpectedly shutting him down as he was discussing the death of yet another school student. Barbary says that this is the first time that the station has taken such an extreme position against Ebrashy.
Abdulla suggests this recent wave indicates tolerance for different voices in the media is shrinking even more.
The crackdown on the media started with the shutting down of Islamist television stations the day Morsi was ousted, arguing they support terrorism. It then went after opposition voices, such as satirist Bassem Youssef, who kept moving from one station to the other before going off air, and talk show hosts Dina Abdel Rahman, Reem Magued and most recently Yosri Fouda, who have all voluntarily stopped their shows as the space for freedom of expression has narrowed.
“Now this very last wave is quite alarming because it seems you don’t have to be an Islamist or extreme oppositional figure to be censored. Even slightly oppositional voices are being shut down. Basically the message is, if you have the guts to sing even one note out of chorus, then you’re out.”
This article has been amended to correct the spelling of Rasha Abdulla as well as to list a few of the notable state- and privately owned newspapers behind Sunday’s press statement. The fact that Khaled Salah attended Sunday’s press meeting has also been added.