MARED on religion discrimination in the Egyptian media
When, a few years ago, sectarian strife and the violence against Copts escalated to unprecedented levels, a group of pundits and intellectuals who espoused a strong belief in equality and citizenship rights decided not to fall prey to despair and frustration. Rather, they realised the need to form a movement defending those principles and thus, in 2006 Egyptians against Religious Discrimination (MARED) came into being. From day one, MARED spared no effort to identify and stand up against manifestations of discrimination against religious minorities, whether they were Copts, Baha’is, Qur’anis or any other denomination.
The group’s first conference was held in 2008 under the slogan “Egypt for all Egyptians” and focused on developing a concept of what is meant by religious discrimination and the role of rumours in fuelling sectarian conflicts. MARED’s second conference was convened in 2009 under the slogan “Education and Citizenship”.
On 29 May, the third conference was hosted by the Democratic Front Party (DFP) under the slogan “The Media and Citizenship”. A large number of attendants lashed out at the discriminative policies adopted by some newspapers, websites and satellite channels against non-Muslims in general and Copts in particular.
In the inaugural session Mounir Megahed, MARED’s coordinator, showed that the idea of specifying a conference to discuss the media’s role in sectarianism came up two years ago with the convocation of the first conference, where it was realised that the media played a pivotal role in fomenting sectarian strife
“Although MARED appreciates the efforts by some journalists and media figures, we are aware of the fact that some newspapers and media outlets adopt a sectarian discourse which incites hatred against Christians, Jews, Baha’is and other religious minorities,” Dr Megahed said.
Usama al-Ghazali Harb, chairman of the Democratic Front political party, stressed his party’s intention to support efforts combating religious discrimination and his belief that civil society and political parties should join forces in confronting the rise of sectarianism. “The past few years,” Dr Harb said, “have seen a dramatic change in society, with discrimination gaining momentum on different fronts. This situation has much to do with the rise of backward ideas as well as the absence of democracy and pluralism”.
The journalist William Wissa, who currently resides in Paris, argued that the media lost its independence and freedom following the 1952 Revolution, which he insisted was a coup d’état. Dr Wissa reminded of one of the most brutal incidents of violence against Copts during the last two decades, that of al-Kosheh in 1998, and the manner in which the press handled it. “After a Copt was murdered in the village,” he said, “the police wanted to find a Coptic perpetrator at any cost, just for the sake of not branding the crime as a sectarian one. More than 1000 Coptic villagers were caught and tortured so that one of them would confess to committing the crime. The State-owned newspapers and magazines imposed a blackout on the disgraceful practices. There were headlines such as ‘Lies of persecution of the Copts in al-Kosheh’ and news stories on demonstrations to show unity between Muslims and Copts were fabricated.” Apart from Watani and the leftist weekly al-Ahali, Dr Wissa said, not one paper bothered to send a reporter to write a story from the scene of events.
Dr Wissa criticised the persistence of the media in holding Copts and Muslims equally responsible for sectarian violence through the use of clichés such as “fanatics from both sides” despite the fact that Copts were invariably the victims of the attacks.
Nag Hammadi crime
Prominent journalist and writer Karima Kamal spoke about the media’s biased coverage of the Nag Hammadi crime, when six Copts were shot dead and 19 were injured while leaving a Church following Midnight Mass last Christmas. First, she said, the press underestimated the magnitude of the crime, and none of the government-owned newspapers took it as its main headline. “Then the media was determined to dismiss any sectarian motive behind the crime. A link was immediately forged between the crime and an alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Coptic man last November.” The man has to date not been indicted for his alleged crime, a fact interpreted by most observers to indicate that no evidence exists to incriminate him.
“The media attitude undermined society’s sympathy with the victims and turned Copts into criminals,” Ms Kamal continued. There was no question, she said, of comparing such coverage with that of the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini, a veiled Egyptian woman murdered by a racist in a Dresden courtroom last July, where the media mobilised public opinion against the ‘racist, Islamophobic West’.
Ms Kamal said the press’s starting point when covering sectarian events was a denial of any sectarian strife. Hence some incidents were ignored totally while others were underestimated or portrayed as ordinary, individual crimes.
Incitement by the press
For his part Islamic theorist Gamal al-Banna argued that the Coptic discourse had experienced a negative transformation over the past decades. During the period from the 1920s to the 1950s, Mr Banna said, the Coptic discourse was based on sympathy and tolerance. From 1971 on, he explained, three factors had cooperated to change it: the ascent of Sadat, the election of Pope Shenouda III and the rise of political Islam.
Saïd Shoeb, editor of the Youm al-Sabei website, recalled the startling claim made by a certain editor who stated that there were weapons inside a number of churches and monasteries and that “the Pope wanted to burn this country, as though it expressed the mood prevalent in the Egyptian street.”
The question of Islamic newspapers and magazines, particularly those published by State institutions, was brought up by Watani reporter Robeir al-Faris. Many of these publications, Mr Faris said, defamed the Christian faith and its symbols, and insisted on depicting the Coptic Church and its monasteries as a military militia, citing as evidence the ‘keeps’ of ancient monasteries. They suggested this militia was bent on waging war against Egypt’s Muslims, and since most of the readers were not well-informed on churches and monasteries the damage done by such ridiculous allegations was immeasurable, according to Mr Faris.
Respect for religions
Even though some media outlets had a positive impact in terms of defending the rights of the Baha’is, the prominent Baha’i activist Basma Moussa said, others contributed to agitating against them. A flagrant example was when the Baha’is in the village of Shouraniya in Sohag were attacked and forced to flee their homes and livelihoods following allegations made by the media that Baha’is are apostates.
The need to train journalists and raise their awareness of ‘the other’ who may be of a different religion was stressed by Saad Hagras, editor-in-chief of al-Alam al-Youm. Ahmed Sameh, director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence, called for the formation of a national council affiliated to parliament and charged with monitoring audio and visual media outlets and revoking the licences of channels inciting religious hatred. Mr Sameh’s proposal was endorsed by the conference and included in its final communiqué.
At the close of the conference, a communiqué was issued to stress the need for the media to respect all religions and faiths and to discontinue all practice of defamation of religions of minorities. Values of equality and sympathy among Egyptians should be promoted, and State run and owned media outlets should stick to impartiality when covering religious issues and incidents of sectarian character.
Finally, it was stressed that the code of ethics governing journalism ought to be activated, particularly the article banning sectarian or racist biases.
20 June 2010