During the past weeks, we have witnessed clear steps taken to polarize the media in order to support the Muslim Brotherhood and muzzle those who oppose President Mohammed Morsi. The new information minister, Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, was selected from the Brotherhood ranks. Indeed, Maqsoud is a journalist and a unionist; however, after his appointment he made a decision to shut down a private TV channel and confiscate newspapers after they were accused of insulting the president and publishing false reports. Such accusations put any journalist at risk of incarceration. On the same note, the Shura Council utilized its legal powers, which it had inherited from Mubarak’s regime, to appoint new editors-in-chief for government-owned newspapers based on their affiliation to the Brotherhood and President Morsi.
The Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice party and Morsi were not the ones responsible for enacting these rules and laws. But they used them automatically after they inherited them following years of tyranny in Egypt. The irony is that the government that came following the end of the revolution did not change the situation for journalists and the media. The revolution contributed to raising the ceiling of press freedoms, while the role of the media boomed during this period. Yet, the media was a victim of this failed revolution, in which there was no planned efforts exerted to develop Egypt’s press. After the revolution, the status of the media and the laws governing it remained outdated, undemocratic and lacking structure and self-regulation. Due to their lack of self-regulation, the media committed mistakes that were used by the military council and then the Brotherhood to slander and insult journalists and the media at large.
The fact of the matter is that the military and the Brotherhood are driven by a false conviction that the media creates events and shapes public opinion as it desires. Based on that, the failures of the military and the Brotherhood in the dissolved parliament were pinned to the media. It also seems that this false conviction controls the political and media behavior of the Brotherhood. That is why they have exerted a great effort to establish a newspaper and launch a TV channel under the name of their party. The channel played a pivotal role in promoting Morsi’s presidential campaign. However, both the channel and the newspaper were on the sidelines of competition due to their obvious propaganda tactics that are considered highly unprofessional. There is no doubt that the failure of the privately-owned Brotherhood media portals and the negative sentiment the journalists have for the Brotherhood led them to focus more on the media. Through this step, the members of the Brotherhood are attempting to utilize the media as a tool to dominate the community both intellectually and politically. The Brotherhood suffers from two issues:
First, its political dominance is not supported by media dominance.
Second, the intellectual and cultural dominance of the Brotherhood is not located near the epicenter of cultural and artistic hubs of Egypt (the industries that give Egypt its soft power) and are strongest in rural areas and slums. It is very rare to find a famous artist who belongs to the group. This is mainly due to the Brotherhood’s narrow-mindedness and the dominance of the culture of obedience that shapes the character of the leading figures and members of the group. Polarizing the media to benefit the Brotherhood or its culture depends on a number of interesting factors, mainly:
1. Most audiovisual and print media are affiliated with the government. They also depend on the government for financing, management and course of action. Furthermore, the majority of journalists working in the official media support the government and put its policies into practice. The laws that were inherited from Mubarak’s regime grant the information minister the power of creating and implementing media-related policies, appointing certain persons to preside over the official channels and selecting members of the radio and television union. While the Shura Council, which is made up of an Brotherhood majority, has the right to select editors-in-chief of government newspapers.
2. The absence of independent syndicates for those who work in private and state-owned radio and television channels does not allow them to defend their rights, protect freedom of press and maintain professionalism in this sector. The aforementioned allows the administrative authorities and the owners of satellite channels to interfere in the content of the programs and selection of the guests. This is in addition to the decline in professional performance, especially given the lack of a media honor code. The Journalists Syndicate failed to develop its role following the revolution, in which it witnessed rifts among its members over the decision by the Shura Council to select the editors-in-chief of the state-owned newspapers. Some journalists took part in the process, while others boycotted the process and demanded that the Shura Council stop interfering in media affairs. On the other hand, during its general assembly, the syndicate did not activate an honor code or discuss the issue of drafting articles on media freedoms in the new constitution.
3. The role of the privately-owned media platforms has become more influential than that of the government-owned media portals, and these privately owned platforms account for the largest number of views and advertisements. However, the privately-owned channels are restricted and can be shut down by administrative bodies, because they are linked to the investment committee and not the Information Ministry. There are no laws that define their rights and duties or ones that scrutinize their sources of financing. This means that their freedoms are limited and they can be shut down at any time. The strange thing is that new channels were established following the revolution, despite the fragile situation of these privately-owned channels. Those channels were mainly linked to businessmen and advertising companies. The demand for establishing more channels increased, which led the military to stop authorizing the establishment of new media portals without the issuance of a comprehensive legislation that organizes the discourse of the privately-owned channels.
4. There is an array of laws, more than 30, that allows the mandatory detention of journalists, media personalities and bloggers. Since the reign of Mubarak, journalists have been demanding the cancelation of these laws and instead imposing financial penalties related to publishing crimes. However, the military council and the post-revolution governments did not respond to the demands of the journalists and at the same time did not use them against freedom of press. The laws remained as swords at the necks of journalists and bloggers. The government under the reign of President Morsi used these laws and as a result an editor-in chief of a newspaper was referred to prosecution for insulting the president and spreading rumors. The prosecution sentenced him to preventative detention prior to his trial. But Morsi used his legislative powers to issue a law to bar the detention pending trial of journalists involved in offenses related to the media. It is a very positive step; however, it is not enough since the journalist could be prosecuted and sentenced to jail, even though some would consider what he or she had published to fall within the boundaries of freedom of opinion. The problem here is that the president has used his legislative powers for the first time to cancel the constitutional declaration and the law that allows detention pending trial of journalists, but he did not use his powers to cancel the penalties related to publishing crimes that limit freedom. Hence, there are concerns that the president might use his legislative authority in areas that will not promote press freedoms but instead limit them and restructure the government for the benefit of the Brotherhood.
In addition to the aforementioned factors, the Brotherhood enjoys the ability to call for demonstrations at any time, in which it recently urged its supporters to surround the Media Production City and attack a number of journalists. However, there are obstacles facing the Brotherhood’s plan to control the media and making the mission of the Brotherhood extremely difficult:.
1. The open public sphere and media freedoms achieved following the revolution cannot be undone, regardless of any threats or risks.
2. The difficulty in solving the tremendous economic and administrative issues facing the radio and television union and the official media.
3. The rise of the role of social media in Egypt and the complexity of controlling it or limiting freedoms on the internet
4. There is a possibility that the role of journalists and employees in the radio and television sector will evolve, prompting them to start seeking to protect their freedoms. This is especially true given that the revolutionary situation in Egypt will definitely support their call for independence of the media by breaking its affiliation with the government and the president. I believe that the first step should be active participation in drafting new laws on freedoms and media in the new constitution. Furthermore, there should be a general discussion concerning these laws, especially in light of fears that the Brotherhood and the Salafists alone will draft the constitution.