For 15,000 Egyptian pounds, a bit over $2,200, famous Egyptian political satirist and “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” Bassem Youssef has been released on bail. He faces charges of insulting the president, contempt for Islam, publishing false news and reportedly also a fourth charge that has not yet become public.
A throng of his fans had passionately greeted him upon his arrival at the prosecutor’s office. One even had an oversized version of Morsi’s now-famous Pakistani doctorate hat similar to one that Bassem had featured recently on his show. Youssef, laughing, donned this one in the street for a moment before heading in to comply with the investigation. While there, he appeared to keep his cool, reportedly even posting a few lighthearted tweets during the proceedings, and he seemed even more defiant in his subsequent interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. But later, Youssef tweeted in an uncharacteristically sombre tone: “It seems they want to drain us physically, emotionally and financially.”
While his case has drawn massive international and local attention and condemnation — with even Jon Stewart himself dedicating 11 minutes of his show to support for Youssef and a vociferous criticism of Morsi — quite a few voices, mostly Islamist, have claimed he got what he thoroughly deserves. Youssef, to them, is intentionally causing needless national unrest, crossing all lines of “proper, constructive opposition,” has often “trespassed moral and cultural norms” and is perhaps even “against Islam” itself. Some even went as far as making the paranoid suggestion that Stewart’s support of Youssef was “proof of how organized the international conspiracy against Morsi and the Islamic project is.”
Later the following day, additional serious charges were filed against Youssef and a host of other media figures in a new and separate case. The day after that, the daily Al-Watan produced a letter from the Egyptian investment authority seemingly threatening to take Bassem Youssef’s channel off the air unless the show is canceled or amends its tone, causing an explosion of outrage on social media. Many now worry about an all-out assault against Youssef and the private media.
From political satire to news: About two weeks before this, and for the second time in just a few months, a small number of Islamists surrounded Egypt’s Media Production City, a large complex of studios and facilities. The first time this happened, in December 2012, it was a major event. This time around, major Islamist groups — and even the man behind the idea, Abu Ismail — did not participate, those who did made up for their smaller numbers in zeal. They clashed with security, reportedly assaulted a few media figures, blocked guests and even tried to break into the complex. They left only the religious channels unobstructed. When they left over the following two days, the extent of their anger left an indelible trace.
There is a profound and escalating enmity between the country's Islamists and much of the private media, perhaps deeper than the rivalry with the opposition. Such media is “trying to destroy the country and intentionally sowing unrest,” Islamists' supporters claim on social media and elsewhere. Quotes describing media figures as "mercenaries being paid by the counter-revolution" are common on Twitter and Facebook, as well as accusations that "they want to bring down Morsi and are against anything Islamic." Muslim Brotherhood figures and even the prime minister have also expressed frustration with the private media, accusing them of being unobjective and hiding any achievements of the government or at least not giving them proper coverage. One poster, held up during the first media city sit-in, photoshopped famous TV presenters as vampires, teeth dripping with blood.
Generally speaking, a bias, if acknowledged, is increasingly accepted in modern media. And much of Egypt’s more prominent private media does appear to have some bias, toward the opposition as well as the liberal and leftist sides of the political spectrum. OnTV, for example, publicly calls itself a “liberal” news channel and was founded by major opposition figure and businessman Naguib Sawiris. Widely read newspapers such as Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Watan and Al-Shorouk share similar outlooks to some extent. Many TV presenters often support opposition-aligned opinions, may intercede between guests in their program discussions to that effect and cheer for opposition protests as they take place. Some smaller protests seem editorially magnified in significance. It is also incredibly difficult these days to find positive mention of Morsi, the Brotherhood and the government in the private media, even if for increasingly good reason, and some critiques feel a tad "stretched." Technically, especially in the case of print media, there is room for objective criticism. Perhaps more often than should be, anonymously-sourced and rumor-based stories are featured, quotes seem to be taken out of context and headlines can be substantially misleading.
But there was also some degree of peaceful co-existence at first, and quite a few moments — in my observation — of positive engagement between the private media and Morsi. The breaking point seems to have been the constitutional declaration in November of last year, and the subsequent referendum on the constitution. Since then, the private media’s stance has been decisively more confrontational and critical of the administration and the Brotherhood, in line with an increasingly polarized national mood. The combative atmosphere has grown more tense with each lawsuit filed against opposition and independent journalists and media figures, many under archaic laws whose origins date back more than a century, that prohibit insulting the president or any state institution or public servants. Then, of course, there is the alarming rise in the amount of "contempt of Islam" charges.
But the media on the other side has not been exactly perfect.
The Brotherhood’s TV Channel, Egypt 25, and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)’s newspaper are also not known to be particularly neutral and objective, though with a much smaller viewership and circulation. If opposition and independent media was accused of lacking objectivity in their criticism, they are in good company. Many local religious channels, now gaining a larger share of political content and debate, are decidedly biased toward Morsi often full of incitement and false information against the opposition, and at times use discourse that arouses sectarian worries. The performance of state media, which is under the influence of a Brotherhood information minister and state financial support as well as a Shura Council, which played a leading role in selecting its heads, is also the subject of heated criticism.
Ultimately, though, there are three questions at the heart of this debate. The first and most immediate is media freedom from political pressure, especially in the midst of the current national conflict. The second is a debate over the professional standards of the industry. The third, and most complex, appears as a real conservative-liberal philosophical disagreement over paradigms, norms and values pertaining to how the media should conduct its business.
Assuming Egypt manages to miraculously break the political impasse, there will have to be a real discussion about media ethics and regulations in Egypt. A lot needs to be done to support journalism standards, to develop a clear and coherent legal and professional framework to protect the media, uphold the freedom of speech and protect state-owned media from unwarrented political influence. And all this needs to be done in a manner that generates sufficient consensus and that grows predominantly from the media community itself rather than from the government or legislative chambers. The new Journalists Syndicate should take a leading role in that regard.
Islamists themselves will also have to come to some necessary realizations: The media can be biased, and they will have to coexist with a strong media that has little fondness for them. The days of patriarchal political regimes are over, and the Islamist leadership will have to convey such facts to an increasingly unhappy base. Worldwide, fiery opinion-driven media is growing.
Moreover, political satire of the kind that Bassem Youssef does has become a key element of modern democracies and freedom of speech, and everyone will have learn how to live with it. Those who are dissatisfied should perhaps produce their own brand of it, and accept that Youssef has a massive audience that wants what he does. Instead of trying to just clamp down on the media, the Brotherhood and its allies should perhaps instead try to create a model of what they think good media should look like. But one is thing for sure: all the pressure is only making the media more defiant, and will rally more people around it.
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