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Egypt coup spotlights local media complaints

July 24, 2013

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Cairo, Egypt – When Egypt’s army stated that a media “code of ethics” would be part of its roadmap to elections following the removal of democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi, the announcement reflected nationwide concern that local media bias has deepened political polarisation in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Shortly after the army deposed Morsi, soldiers shut down five local independent television channels that were considered pro-Morsi and were accused by the military of inciting violence. The move triggered conflicting responses between Morsi supporters and the opposition, but bolstered the widespread sentiment that the country’s more than 200 TV channels and dozens of newspapers and radio stations had lost their sense of objectivity along the way.

In his July 3 statement announcing Morsi’s ouster, head of Defense General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said the roadmap would include a plan to  improve Egypt’s media that would “establish values and ethics for the media to follow”.

According to Arab media analyst Courtney C Radsch, any media code of ethics “needs to be based on self-regulation not statutory regulation”.

“For example,” she said, “media or press councils or ombudsmen can deal with the complaints against the press, but this should be an independent industry or industry-public body, not a statutory one.”

The domestic media landscape has been under fire for years, with critics saying it lacks objectivity and is increasingly partisan. Experts say it was a major contributor to – as well as a victim of – political turmoil that divided the nation into camps against and for the Morsi administration.

“Media in Egypt have tended to reflect the interests of their owners, and thus perhaps it is not surprising that as the political situation has become more polarised, so too has media coverage,” Radsch said.

Following the 2011 revolution, which ended former president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, the number of television channels surged as the media enjoyed a growing margin of editorial freedom. Several businessmen kicked off new projects, fronted by celebrity hosts who competed through overlapping daily talk shows. Objectivity was abandoned by most of them in their rush to analyse rapid political developments and respond to information-hungry audiences.

“We do not have such a thing as professional media,” Ayman Al-Sayyad, a journalsist and former member of Morsi’s advisory board, told Al Jazeera. “Seventy percent of our media outlets lack objectivity,” he added.

Al-Sayyad said these channels have become “vessels” for political powers. “At times of instability, like the ones we’ve been living now for years, media becomes no more than a tool in the hands of the powers it resembles, and its role becomes political rather than informative,” he said.

During Morsi’s one-year rule, privately-owned liberal channels – including ONtv, CBC, and Dream TV – were platforms for almost daily fierce criticism of the presidency. Morsi’s sympathisers saw their coverage as biased, and believe it only added to the many challenges he faced. They say such outlets fomented nationwide discontent towards Morsi’s government through spreading false rumors, including claims the government intended to rent the country’s antiquities to foreign firms and sell its waterway, the Suez Canal.

Following El-Sisi’s televised statement ousting Morsi, liberal channels blatantly celebrated the announcement with national songs played to footage of the millions who had stormed the streets demanding early elections. In a show on El-Yawm, which is a part of privately-owned Orbit Communications Company, host Amr Edib was near tears as he waved a large Egyptian flag and chanted “Allah is the Greatest! Good riddance!”

Meanwhile, on pro-Morsi TV channels, some hosts who catered to passionate supporters of the ousted president have been accused of resorting to sectarianism and hate speech, with broadcasts allegedly targeting the Christian minority, and Shia Muslims. Human Rights Watch says the broadcasts spurred several attacks against both groups, including the lynching of four Shia in June and reoccurring assaults against Egypt’s Christian Coptic community. Read more at AlJazeera.

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