Egypt Falling Out With World Media: New Realities?

Wednesday 14 March 201809:01 pm
A BBC report published on 23 February claims an Egyptian woman named Zubeida fell victim to forced disappearance ten months ago, quoting her mother who points the finger at security forces. However, the girl recently appeared on an Egyptian talk show to refute the allegation, stirring controversy and further straining relations between Egypt and the international media. The next day, Egypt's State Information Service (SIS) issued a statement that "breaks down the lies of BBC", highlighting "contradictions, negative prejudice and violations of all professional standards in the field of journalism and media". The official public relations body has also called on Egyptians to boycott the benchmark British network. This was followed by a decision by the Prosecutor General, Egypt's top prosecutor, to closely monitor media outlets and social media sites that spread lies and false news, and take legal action accordingly. The statement refers to "attempts by the evil forces" to endanger Egypt's security. BBC said it would discuss the matter with Egyptian authorities "in the coming days". This dispute is not a one-off in Egypt; it was preceded by other incidents that saw the Egyptian government -- mostly represented by the SIS -- demand that foreign media make corrections. Tension has escalated as Egypt moved back in the Press Freedom Index last year.

Disputed Death Tolls

Last October, the SIS opened fire at Reuters and BBC over their coverage of the Oasis terrorist attack in Egypt's Western Desert, specifically for reporting unofficial figures of casualties while citing anonymous security forces. Reuters reported that 52 had been killed while BBC said the death toll had reached 53. The official statement of the Ministry of Interior said the next day only 16 police personnel had been gunned down, including 11 officers. Reuters and BBC at the time replied to criticism saying that three security sources informed them of the death toll after militants fired rockets at a policy convoy. However, the SIS kept hitting out at the coverage of BBC and Reuters, with its head Diaa Rashwan telling both networks to either publish an apology or verify their alleged higher death tolls. BBC and Reuters have relied on the official figures in their follow-up stories.

The New York Times Leaks

The New York Times last January published a story by David Kirkpatrick who said he had obtained leaked recordings of phone calls between an Egyptian intelligence officer named Ashraf El-Kholy, and several TV presenters as well as actress Yosra. In the calls, the officer gives them directives about what to say to the media with regard to the anticipated relocation of the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; he wants to ensure that they would stick to the official line. The SIS lambasted the report, saying it did not provide a single piece of evidence that the alleged caller was indeed an Egyptian intelligence officer. The governmental body has denied in a later statement there was an officer named Ashraf El-Kholy within Egyptian intelligence's ranks. In a previous similar incident, the New York Times reported that Israel had executed 100 airstrikes into Egyptian airspace over the course of two years with the approval of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Military spokesperson Tamer El-Refaie shrugged off the report while speaking to the media, yet did not issue a communiqué commenting on it.

Mistakes: Random or Systematic?

Media expert Yasser Abdel-Aziz believes the Egypt coverage of BBC is "systematically biased", saying the network's misreporting have repeatedly "damaged" the Egyptian state one way or another. "As researchers, we think that this line is deliberate," he told Raseef22, explaining that there is always a margin of error in media coverage yet it is never normal that all mistakes are similarly destructive. "Upon scrutinizing the latest documentary pursuant to the BBC editorial guidelines, we can see that it is greatly prejudiced and includes clear professional violations," Abdel-Aziz added. Volkhard Windfuhr, the head of the Cairo Foreign Press Association, said such blunders pose a problem whether they were on purpose or not. Ultimately, disputes between media organizations and governments in democratic states are defined and determined by the law, the German journalist told Raseef22. Although slip-ups are probable in any profession, news organizations would still be held responsible for misreporting, according to Khaled El-Balshy, a former member of the Egyptian press syndicate's Freedoms Committee. Blowing such mistakes out of proportion, on the other hand, aims at undermining the media altogether, El-Balshy said to Raseef22. Only transparency and free information access can be the solution, he went on, saying boycott calls and sparking disputes to indicate that "whatever is left of media freedoms will be eradicated" cannot be steps in the right direction. The reply of the BBC to the Prosecutor General's statement was commendable, according to Hussein Amin, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo. He told Raseef22 that even though international media organizations make mistakes, discussions -- not boycott -- are the best way to overcome ensuing stalemates.

"Great Favor to the Egyptian Government"

The Egyptian regime has been facing a wave of criticism prompted by right groups. Most recently, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on authorities to immediately release "those arrested solely for expressing criticism or participating in peaceful activism". "The intensifying repression and the use of terrorism-related charges against peaceful activists are emblematic of a government strategy to silence critical voices ahead of the planned presidential elections on March 26-28," reads the HRW report. Considering the circumstances, Abdel-Aziz is convinced the international media's slip-ups are in fact in Egyptian authorities' best interest. "This is a great favor to the Egyptian government," he said. "The prosecutor general's decision would've come under fire had it been taken in normal circumstances because it piles more pressure on freedoms. But it came in the context of the government tackling false news and biased coverage." The Egyptian regime has always sought to take advantage of the international media's mistakes in order to promote the idea that the "state is targeted", opined El-Balshy. He also said focusing on illegal practices the government is accused of -- such as torture and forced disappearances -- is not beyond the professional norms of journalism.

Blocking More Sites?

The Freedom of Thought and Expression Law Firm (AFTE) has issued a report saying the number of blocked sites in Egypt has reached 496 since May 2017, including news outlets, papers, rights groups and publications loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood -- from which hails Egypt's ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Amidst the ongoing tensions between the Egyptian government and the international media, will the former opt to block more sites or shut down bureaus of major newspapers and networks? "Egypt is facing a challenge in terrorism," Abdel-Aziz said. "Any country that feels its security is targeted can take draconian measures, so everything is expected. The accumulating and consecutive mistakes have put the advocates of journalism and media freedom in an critical situation." Egyptian authorities' judgment is not unerring while local media's professionalism is far from exemplary, Abdel-Aziz elaborated, "yet the recurring blunders by large news organizations give the government a justification to take measures towards such violations, including the Prosecutor General's latest decision". However, El-Balshy thinks that blocking sites of international media is doubtful, saying the regime currently settles for damaging the credibility of large media institutions and promoting that they target the Egyptian state. On the possibility that foreign correspondents will be restricted ahead of this year's presidential election, Windfuhr says non-Egyptian reporters in Egypt have more freedom than any other Arab or Middle Eastern country, including Israel, adding that he has not received complaints on such difficulties so far.
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