11 September 2011
How far will the media go to grab reader or viewer attention? And where does that stand from the basic code of media honour?
It is not too long ago that the scandalous downfall of the The News of the World rocked the media in the West—and in the world. It was a rude reminder that, in our modern age of technology and global communication, the media plays a pivotal role in the dissemination of information and the shaping of public opinion. And to that end, more often than not, the media resorts to methods that are at best questionable in its fight for reader, viewer or online visitor attention.
Egypt is no exception to the rule.
With more than some 530 papers now on the market, as well as the TV channels and countless online papers and blogs, the harsh competition produces not a few inaccurate items, half-truths, or outright fabrications.
Last Wednesday, in a meeting between representatives of the Miltary Council and the Cabinet, several decisions were taken regarding the media. It was decided that no more licenses will be issued for new satellite channels, that legal actions will be taken against existing channels which work to stir sedition, and a demand was issued to the press to print only accurate information and stay away from sensationalism.
Only a couple of weeks ago, the talk show Kish Malik (Checkmate) on al-Hayat TV satellite channel hosted the singer Laila Ghufran whose daughter, a young woman in her twenties, was murdered two years ago. The murder case made headlines in the Egyptian media, until the murderer was convicted. On the recent talk show, Ghufran spoke feelingly of the media’s perverse interference in the case and the countless unsubstantiated stories published on the matter. In one instance which Ghufran took to court and won a ruling in her favour, headlines were spread claiming that the son of the then Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had paid the murderer to kill Ghufran’s daughter, insinuating the young man and woman were having an affair. “The claim was a total fabrication,” Ghufran said. “And I am saying this because it is the plain truth; Nazif is now in prison and I have no invested interest whatsoever in defending his son.”
Unite, not divide
Especially in case of sectarian strife, the dissemination of inaccurate information may be detrimental. Several recent seminars stressed the role of the media in propagating in Egypt a culture of hatred and sowing sectarian strife, through the direct instigation of hatred or by spreading unsubstantiated news.
Whether out of a desire to raise circulation or viewership, or out of ulterior motives, the propagation of hatred has been condemned as irresponsible by everyone concerned with the integrity of this nation.
Watani’s editor-in-chief Youssef Sidhom has repeatedly called for trustworthy, credible, accurate reporting and, in the specific case of sectarian issues, for attitudes that unite not divide. Following the sectarian violence in Umraniya, Giza, last October, during which three Copts lost their lives and scores were injured, the Journalists’ Syndicate board convened and issued a declaration on the honourable manner to deal with sectarian issues. Mr Sidhom strongly praised that declaration which called for the prompt passage of a law to criminalise religious addresses that call for hatred of the other, whether in the media, schools, or inside houses of worship.
The declaration also demanded that journalists focus on asserting values of national unity, with the editor-in-chief of every paper bearing full responsibility for the implementation of this strategy. It recommended banning the holding of, egging on, or reporting on debate concerned with issues of comparative faith. Finally, the declaration called on the syndicate, the Supreme Press Council, and the Investment Authority to monitor violations and take disciplinary action against violators.
This was back in November 2010. Today, following the 25 January Revolution and the consequent freedom granted to Islamists; sectarian, divisive address has been alarmingly on the rise, with Islamists flagrantly propagating notions that very effectively exclude the ‘other’. And the Journalists’ Syndicate, like most other institutions in Egypt, is in disarray to sufficiently paralyse it into taking no action.
Watani took the matter to Abdel-Mohsen Salama, deputy and temporary acting head of the Journalists’ Syndicate. “Matters with a religious or sectarian dimension should be broached objectively,” he remarked. The main role of the press and media in general, he says, is to raise public awareness without delving into sensitive religious differences. “Journalists should deal with the sectarian file wisely, otherwise they should be subjected to disciplinary action,” Mr Salama warned.
Salah Eissa, editor-in-chief of the weekly State-owned al-Qahira, is in total agreement with Mr Sidhom and Mr Salama. Where the sectarian file is concerned, Mr Eissa says, the press should act as a unifying not a divisive force. The Egyptian law, he reminded, penalises anyone who insults religions or works to damage relations between the children of the homeland. He advises anyone who feels wronged by the press handling of the sectarian file to report it to the Journalists’ Syndicate. “The problem is that very often those who have complaints do not take them to the syndicate,” he says.
More appealing, exciting, and sought-after
But does the media aim to raise circulation or viewership by propagating exaggerated stories? Watani asked. “Material that tackles sectarian or sensitive issues in general is for readers more appealing, exciting, and sought-after. Tabloids resort to such material to garner profits, even if they compromise on professional ethics. Yet, in the long run,” Mr Eissa reminds, “the price of compromise is the loss of credibility.” Mr Eissa had previously suggested the institution of a specific journalistic code of honour. The existing General Journalistic Code of Honour,” he insists, “is too broad and included countless loopholes.”
“The only concern of many journalists is to raise circulation, regardless,” Hassan Wagih, professor of negotiation and inter-religion dialogue, insists. “Yet they are not alone to blame for the sectarian quagmire. Just look at the countless websites, blogs, and social network sites—major among which is Facebook—that exaggerate or fabricate stories of sectarian nature.” We need laws that would criminalise the instigation of hatred and strife, Dr Wagih says.
“If the law is applied,” says Emad Gad, expert at al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, 90 per cent of writers and journalists would opt to stay away from disdaining religion.” The State should bear the all-important responsibility of educating the public in schools and in the media against hatred and division. “In the long term,” Mr Gad says, “it is a communal rather than a penal problem.”
Discrimination based on faith
Journalism professor Marei Madkour stresses the need for a law to allow free access to information. Current laws lack such a provision, and lack as well stipulations related to religious-oriented material. The deficiency is “very serious”, he says. “We cannot leave such issues unregulated, especially considering online material which is farthest from any control or legislation,” Dr Madkour pointed.
“The problem is that the Egyptian mind is undergoing a crisis,” says Kamal Abul-Magd, professor of constitutional law at Cairo University and a member of the Islamic Research Centre. Abul-Magd reminds that the origin of the problem is that Copts are not granted their full rights as Egyptian citizens and are discriminated against based on their faith. Decades during which Egyptians went to work in Gulf countries resulted in an invasion of Wahabi thought, which in turn instated a culture of intolerance alien to our community. The current discriminative, intolerant media address is a spillover of a deeper societal crisis for which the State and the clerics are to blame, he says. “The journalistic code of honour should be empowered, especially given the information age we live in,” Dr Abul-Magd says, stressing the need to set deterrent penalties that could even mean expulsion from the Journalists’ Syndicate.
Where Copts are concerned
Coptic sites and papers have not been immune to the media’s propensity to exaggerate.
Last May, two Coptic underage girls Christine, 17, and Nancy, 14, eloped with Muslim neighbours and were later found by the police and placed in a social institution until matters could be sorted out with their families. Watani, naturally, reported the story. A few days later, a rights group contacted us to ask what had happened to the girls; a website posted a story that they had been victims of human trafficking. We replied that nothing was further from the truth, but felt pained that such stories garner huge numbers of visitors online while sites that adhere to the plain truth struggle to lure visitors.
Another detrimental sample of false stories that are propagated in the media to inflame sectarian strife is the infamous rumour propagated by Islamist papers, and repeatedly warned of in Watani International, of weapons being stockpiled inside churches and monasteries in Egypt.
In April 2010, the writer Mohamed Abbas wrote in the Islamic monthly al-Mukhtar al-Islami (Islamic Selections) “Today’s churches are tomorrow’s fortresses and arms stores” insisting it is not the Muslim jamaat who form militias, it is the Copts. The claim was later ‘confirmed’ by the Islamic scholar Selim al-Awa—today a candidate for presidential elections—who said on al-Jazira’s Bila Hoadood (Without Limits) that churches in Egypt are places for stocking up on weapons and training Coptic youth on warfare.
On 9 May 2010, Robeir al-Faris wrote in his “Copts in the Egyptian media” in Watani International: “Awa’s allegations were widely criticised as false and irresponsible, but it appears the damage has already been done. Several mosque imams inside and outside Cairo took his lead and spread word that the Church was a ‘State inside a State’ preparing to wage war on Egypt’s Muslims. No matter how ridiculous this sounds to reasonable persons, it falls on ready ears among the uneducated who are poorly informed on Christianity and Christians. The matter is too serious to brush off as ‘nonsense’. Persuading a sector of the community that another sector is preparing to wage war on them is no laughing matter.” And using the media to propagate it is even more disastrous.