To count by the book: Who can say what happened beside the Wahat Road?

“Ignoring media requests, not answering requests and not providing any information undermines transparent, accurate, fair and objective coverage. For us, it is crucial that this  issue is resolved to prevent journalists from seeking other sources of information,” says Volker Schwenck, the Cairo bureau chief of the German television broadcaster ARD.

Schwenck’s comments came as a response to the criticism Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS) and several media sources have leveled at media outlets for their coverage of the October 20 attack near the Wahat Road 135 km outside of Giza, notably the discrepancy in the death toll among police figures. A story of numbers may have taken up Egypt’s collective bandwidth as the events unfolded, but the days following have been punctuated by an at times hostile conversation over who has the right to document events that occur in areas behind the state’s figurative red tape.

News of the attack started to trickle in at midday on Friday. In the absence of official statements regarding the attack, Egyptian news websites and foreign agencies started to report on the clashes. Most cited what they referred to as “security sources,” while others cited news agencies like Reuters.

The first reports put the death toll at three, but that figure increased to 14, then 20, then 30. At 10 pm on Friday night, the Interior Ministry finally issued a statement on the attack, but there were still no casualty figures announced. Egyptian and foreign news websites continued to cite “security sources,” which, by midnight, reported the death toll at over 50. The BBC reported that it was told that 53 officers and conscripts had been killed, while Reuters cited three sources as saying that at least 52 had died.

It was not until 8 pm on Saturday that the Interior Ministry released a second statement, in which it announced that 16 police officers were dead, one was missing and 15 militants had been killed.

A few hours after the ministry’s statement was released, Diaa Rashwan, the head of the SIS, hurled criticism at Reuters and the BBC during an appearance on the talk show “Hona al-Asema” (Here’s the Capital), broadcast on the privately owned CBC network. Rashwan’s interview aired just before the SIS issued a statement condemning Reuters and the BBC’s coverage of the attack.

The SIS criticized a discrepancy in the casualty figure between what the agencies reported and what the Interior Ministry announced, accusing Reuters and the BBC of “inaccurate coverage” and demanding that they retract the figures they had reported and relay only their official tally of 16.

While citing external sources was justified due to the delay in the ministry’s announcement, according to Rashwan, he questioned the sources’ knowledge of what happened during the attack.

The SIS statement not only condemned foreign agencies for the figures they reported, but it also criticized the language used in their news coverage.

The SIS criticized the BBC for using the phrase “individuals that were referred to as terrorists” when quoting the Interior Ministry’s statement, with the agency arguing that the phrasing indicates that the broadcaster does not concur with the ministry’s classification of the assailants as “terrorists.” The statement also criticized Reuters for using the term “militants” — which has positive connotations, according to Rashwan — as opposed to “terrorists.”

Rasha Abdulla, a professor and former chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, tells Mada Masr that professional standards require journalists to use unbiased terms, such as “casualties” and “militants,” as opposed to charged terms, such as “shaheed (martyr)” or “terrorists.”

“Citizens have every right to consider the casualties martyrs, but a journalist cannot call them that,” says Abdulla.

The Supreme Media Regulatory Council reiterated Rashwan’s view, stating, in a meeting convened on Sunday, that “the delay of information for a few hours does not justify reporting rumors from unidentified sources, especially when it comes to events that concern the country’s national security.” In its Sunday statement the council criticized what it described as transgressions by the press in its coverage of the Wahat Road attack, including citing “experts who promoted absolutely false narratives.”

On Tuesday, the SIS reiterated its call to foreign media outlets, specifically urging Reuters and the BBC to “retract reports they had published regarding the number of victims that contradict with official figures, and issue an apology for the inaccuracy of these reports and their sources” or “Prove the accuracy of their reports … publishing the names of all the victims that they allege died in this incident.”

According to the statement, the SIS sent letters detailing its criticism to the Cairo bureau heads of BBC and Reuters. The statement also issued an invitation to journalists at the two outlets to verify their reporting by conducting field research in governorates for “the alleged victims;” obtaining information from Health Ministry offices across Egypt to secure death certificates and burial permits and verifying the names of those allegedly killed and wounded included on lists circulated in the media and on social media pages before the Interior Ministry issued its statement.

“And lastly, which may be slightly exaggerated,” the SIS statement continued, “Reuters News Agency and the BBC Network can publish via their available outlets an appeal to any next of kin or acquaintance of alleged victims not mentioned in the official statement by the Interior Ministry to contact them and provide information on the matter.”

Both BBC and Reuters published reports including the criticism leveled by SIS on their reporting.

“We take seriously our obligation to report the news fairly and accurately, and were careful here to report both the Interior Ministry’s account of the situation as well as information we received independently from other sources,” a Reuters spokesperson said.

One foreign correspondent working in Egypt took exception to the SIS’s first statement. “This kind of paternalization from the SIS is insulting.” The correspondent, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that he thinks the state’s strategy is to lash out at the messenger when a major attack takes place rather than hold those responsible accountable.

The correspondent says that journalists came to rely on other sources — rather than the Ministry of Interior’s statements — to verify information. For him, the reason for this shift rests on the fact that Interior Ministry’s statements have lost their credibility, especially given that the ministry has announced information that was proven to be false in previous instances, such as the case of the murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni and the details of clashes in North Sinai.

Mahmoud Kamel, a Journalists Syndicate board member, says that the official entities that have failed to provide journalists with information to help them convey the situation to the public were to blame for any issues in the coverage.

For Kamel, the information blackout emphasizes the importance of implementing the Freedom of Information Act, which the Supreme Media Regulatory Council is currently drafting.

The syndicate board member also notes that local media’s capacity to provide professional coverage has been undermined due to the exclusion of many journalists, an exclusion that he says is based on political biases, in addition to the practice of placing “people who do not know the first thing about the profession and do not abide by the most basic professional journalistic standards or codes of ethics” at the head of the media scene.

The Journalists Syndicate released a statement on Saturday, condemning the attack and calling on citizens to report any “gatherings” or “suspicious movements” to the police or military authorities. The statement, according to Kamel, was issued without prior discussion between board members.

The syndicate’s general secretary, Hatem Zakareya, however, tells Mada Masr that the statement “was released in a hurry, and its content is not controversial.”

“What is the problem? It is the duty of every citizen [to report gatherings.] We used to report suspicious individuals to the military during the revolution,” he says.

Abdulla notes that the working conditions of journalists in Egypt, particularly for press coverage of areas to which authorities restrict access — such as North Sinai or operation areas in the Western Desert — force journalists to resort to sources they cannot publicly disclose for information, in order to provide the public with the knowledge it is entitled to.

“Authorities do not make information available, and journalists cannot be present at the scene or rely on witnesses, because some areas where press coverage is required are vacant of residents, as is the case in North Sinai or desert areas,” says Abdulla.

The AUC professor adds that each media institution devises its own criteria, which guides its policy on publishing and the use of information after it has been verified from two unrelated sources.

In an article published in the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper, media analyst Yasser Abdel Aziz asserted the state’s current communication strategy in its “war on terror” is based “on three main pillars – an information blackout, when it comes to news on ‘terror’ and related clashes, the monopolization of sources and information, and publishing news with a ‘positive presentation’ in an attempt to raise the morale of state forces, state institutions and citizens.”

“This strategy needs to be reconsidered for three main reasons, the first of which is that an information blackout is no longer a viable approach in light of the changes that the communications field has undergone and the ever growing role of social media,” wrote Abdel Aziz.

Abdel Aziz’s article went on to say that, “official sources release information through official channels, and the same sources release other information unofficially. There is also the other side of the war — which has its own effective media — and of course other press and information sources, some of which stand with the opposite side. Therefore, a blackout is virtually impossible.”

Abdel Aziz argued that forcing press coverage of militant attacks to rely exclusively on information provided by official sources is no longer viable, as sources may not respond in time and sometimes do not respond at all. The article added that, “Moreover, they always represent one side of the story, forcing the press to seek out other relevant sources — even unofficial ones — to complete their coverage.”

He also criticized the concept of “positive presentation” as ineffective because “the public is often turned away by such treatment, when it grows certain that it has failed to inform them.”

“The public often turns to other outlets to stay more informed of important developments,” he argues. “They also lose faith in the entire national media system, which is even more serious.”

Amid the dispute over the death toll, a medical source with access to medical personnel tending to those injured or killed in of the attack told Mada Masr that the 16 police officers that the Interior Ministry had announced were killed in the attack is identical to the number of corpses that arrived to police hospitals in Agouza and Nasr City, where they were reviewed by forensic doctors.

“The injured are generally stable, with their injuries ranging from bullet shots to bone fractures,” says the source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. “A number of them have spoken to prosecutors.”

A list published by a police officer was circulated on social media after the attack and included the names of 24 police officers who allegedly died in the attack near the Wahat Road.

Mada Masr independently verified that a number of those who appeared in the list died in previous attacks in Sinai, including Armed Forces officers. Among those included on the list who did not die in Friday’s attack are Colonel al-Sayed Fawzy, who was killed in 2015 during an attack on the camp he was in charge of in Arish; Colonel Ahmed al-Dardery, who was killed in Sheikh Zuwayed in March; Lieutenant Colonel Hazem Ibrahim, who was killed in Sheikh Zuwayed in September 2016; Lieutenant Colonel Mostafa al-Watidy, who died in an Arish bombing in July 2015; Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Abdel Naby, who died in a similar attack in January 2016; Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Haroun, who died in a bombing targeting the Goura checkpoint.

Officer Ahmed Mashour — the brother of Captain Mostafa Mashour, who died in the Wahat Road attack — appeared on the list, despite being alive and currently employed by the Central Security Forces.

In April criticism was also leveled against press coverage of the bombings of Alexandria’s St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church and Tanta’s St. George Coptic Orthodox Church, with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urging satellite channels to cease broadcasting the footage of the blasts. Satellite channels did, in fact, comply with his request, after playing and replaying footage of the bombings for an extended period of time.

The media scene in Egypt is currently monitored by the SIS, a government service directly under the jurisdiction of the president and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, which governs the National Press Authority and the National Broadcasting Authority, both of which were created in April by a presidential decree.

Access to a number of news websites — including Mada Masr and other online platforms — is also currently blocked in Egypt. A report titled “Ordered by an Unknown Authority,” published by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression earlier this month, put the number of blocked websites at 434.

Translation by Salma Khalifah


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