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In Egypt, journalism is a crime

Campaigners say 'journalism is not a crime' in Egypt, but the real crime is how state propaganda has become a stand-in for actual journalism

Before formally entering journalism, I learned to question ceaselessly from a father who was himself an Egyptian journalist. Fast forward 30 years and those very questions can land you in jail in Sisiland.

In Egypt, independent thought and journalism have indeed become a crime, while the true crime of state propaganda is, somehow, viewed as journalism

Yet, to read Western media accounts of the crackdown, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking this was an issue involving a dozen of brave journalists who had been silenced. "Journalism is not a crime," campaigners for arrested journalists protested.

But it is much more complicated. In Egypt, independent thought and journalism have indeed become a crime, while the true crime of state propaganda is, somehow, viewed as journalism.  

Exactly how propaganda power-players have become the state’s "journalists" and how journalists have been criminalised is the sort of tricky, state-initiated dynamic that has empowered the most repressive clampdown in the modern history of Egyptian media.

The worst week in Egyptian journalism

Just last week – in the same week that popular TV announcer Amr El Leithy, the man whose show recently broadcast the important tuk tuk driver video, was prevented from leaving the country - President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had the temerity to say that freedom reigned.

'Look at the press and the media in Egypt and you will find people talk as they please'

- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

"Look at the press and the media in Egypt and you will find people talk as they please," he told a Portuguese TV interviewer. To no one's surprise, this interview was then translated into Arabic and aired on state TV.

Earlier in the year, the regime upped the ante of its press war, invading Egyptian journalists' only sanctuary: the Press Syndicate. On the night of 1 May, men with guns came seeking out colleagues Mahmoud el Sakka and Amr Badr.

Days after the raid, Egyptian Press Syndicate Chief Yahya Qalash on World Press Freedom day outside the syndicate in Cairo (Reuters)
They had the old "spreading false news" accusation at the ready, but most understood the raid as punishment for their outspoken positions regarding the sale of two Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia.

And again, in this past week, for the first time, the state came after the head of the Egyptian press union after a court ruled that Yahia Qalash and two other board members would receive two years in jail for harbouring Badr and Sakka at the Press Syndicate.

The twin blows - invading the syndicate and "legally" attacking its leaders - are nothing short of a declaration of war on Egyptian journalists not towing the state line and the declawing of a once powerful union.

The war of words

For journalists in Sisiland, "you are with us or against us". Sometimes, this dictat is spelled out explicitly, such as when Sisi, in a leaked 2013 video said: "We have been concerned with controlling the media from the very day the army took over in 2011."

In response, one of his senior officers argued for both carrot and the stick: "The media in Egypt is controlled by 20-25 people … we should engage directly - either terrorise them or win them over."

What Sisi has unfurled as president leaves no doubt which option he chose.

Pro-government media, in its various mediums, is a public relations empire in journalistic clothing. Egyptians in need of information on a host of disasters roiling through Egypt are out of luck.

With an illiteracy rate of 25 percent, one must wonder why the state invests so much money and manpower in attempting to control the media. Simple: words matter and both sides understand the polemic.

Inside the machine

Utilising a complex web of social media-based digital armies serving up state doctrine sandwiches while lashing out at opposition voices, the regime strangles dissent while brainwashing a fatigued and willing public.

In writing about the lack of media freedom in Egypt, a writer can find more limitations than freedom – and here I am referring to libel laws that prevent me from naming names. But there is no law that prevents an uncovering of the state misinformation strategy.

The playbook stretches back to the 1950s, when Nasser employed army officers as in-house censors in all newspapers. The world has changed radically in the past 70 years, and these days, to create Orwellian control over the population, the regime has had to move beyond radio and TV.

With Facebook use exploding in Egypt from slightly under four million users in 2010 to over 30 million users, nearly one third of the population, in 2015, those in power found it necessary to construct what has become known as digital armies.

These organised groups, roaming the more politicised Twitter as well, target public opinion in multiple ways. Most innocuously, these groups look to support pro-government figures, chief among them Sisi himself, by publishing pro-regime posts on both Twitter and Facebook.

Digital ambush

More sinister, these "armies" work on changing public opinion in a rather explicit manner.

In the weeks leading to the recent devaluation of the Egyptian pound, within the framework of IMF-mandated policies, these gangs of opinion makers roved far and wide to drum up support for the potentially dangerous deal.

Digital armies locate opinion makers perceived as critical of the regime and pounce in orchestrated attacks to shut down dissent - particularly on Twitter

These mouthpieces, with probable direction from multiple security agencies, also sought to decrease the price of the dollar in the black market prior to the devaluation by encouraging people to dump dollars - warning people that they would lose a great deal post-devaluation, so they said.

Though this tactic became well-known among those trading currencies in closed Facebook groups that this writer monitored, one could sense that it had an impact on the less educated with dollars to sell.

Oppressively, these digital armies locate opinion makers perceived as critical of the regime and pounce in orchestrated attacks to shut down dissent. This tactic is particularly in vogue on Twitter.

In some cases, the verbiage leaves the realm of insults and escalates to the field of direct threats. Having been on the receiving end of such vitriol multiple times, in certain instances, it can be a jarring experience. One can only imagine a private citizen's reaction to such an assault; the word chilling comes to mind.

Say this for these digital armies: they are neither haphazard or accidental. Doubt it? Even if you do not speak a word of Arabic, clicking on this link will show you exactly matching posts by various "personas" within minutes of each other. Welcome to the world of digital armies.

Monologue making

When it comes to TV, the match is even more sophisticated and implicit. Remember, this nation is led by a man famous for saying "listen only to me". Monologue, rather than dialogue, is this government's goal - and a paradigm secured by a majority of the Egyptian media.

These hosts affect public perception with humour and intelligence on one hand, and beat it into submission on the other

Egyptian airwaves are best thought of in cinematic terms. Talk shows are the government's nuclear arsenal and the men and women who host them use charm as their supreme weapon. Names don't matter: the approach and the theory driving the dissemination of misinformation is the crux of the matter.

Think of it this way: those who govern a police state are from a military or police background and, for them, strategy and cunning are air and water. So, you have X number of TV stations, crucial in a nation where one in four people are illiterate, and in each of these stations multiple hosts operate different shows and platforms. The biggest names have the largest audiences and they are trusted by the government to deliver large chunks of public opinion.

Whether speaking of the IMF deal positively, the International Monetary Fund a body they once denounced, or, going further back, screaming and calling people "traitors" to increase voter turnout after an atrocious first two days of presidential elections, these hosts affect public perception with humour and intelligence on one hand and beat it into submission on the other.

Some play the clown, others beauty, a few play the intellectual, yet others admit, on air no less, that they work for the national security apparatus. Whatever their particular part in this charade, in the end, these entertainers posing as journalists truly make journalism in Egypt a crime.

Fortifying disinformation central

Beyond the state promotionals offered by hosts, to further consolidate control of the all-powerful small screen, two giants of private Egyptian TV, CBC and Al Nahar, merged eight months ago with a third giant, ONTV, being bought out by huge Sisi supporter Abu Hashima: control, virtually complete, over the airwaves.

Try now to find detailed TV coverage of civil disobedience, quickly gaining momentum in Egypt’s neighbour to the south, Sudan, and you will be hard pressed. Want to hear more details about the new UN report warning of the potential for another wave of revolt? You may hear it, but it will be from The Economist - not disinformation central.

Protesters outside the Cairo police headquarters in February 2016 after an Egyptian officer shot a driver dead (AFP)
Just as the Muslim Brotherhood tried to control public discourse through many Islamist TV channels, the army, the one in true control now, uses this TV trifecta – and willing hosts -  to reign ideologically supreme.

State control of the media includes newspapers, and radio. The latter continues to play a role, especially in the south and the countryside, albeit less significantly than its role during the Nasser era. But it is TV that shoulders the heaviest weight in terms of delivery of the government's viewpoint.

Centrist journalists who tackle social, economic and political issues, like Lilian Daoud on her ONTV show, are first attacked on social media, then by pro-government newspapers using xenophobia as a weapon, since Daoud, for example, hails from Lebanon. Ultimately, security agencies using an expired contract as a guise expelled the popular Lilian back to her homeland earlier this summer.

What’s really at stake

In the theatre of nuance that is modern Egyptian media, no one is innocent and all sides have agendas.

Nonetheless, there are those powered by professional respect, a devotion to truth and a love for the nation while others carry a cynical sword in defence of a man under whose leadership their brethren have been killed, jailed and tortured.

This is an over-optimistic government that underestimates the minds of 93 million Egyptians. Some governments only learn the lesson the hard way

Analysts choosing to see freedom of the press only through the prism of famous cases and personas like the Marriot Cell, Shawkan and Ismail Il Iskandarani, do a disservice to those trying to understand the full picture.

Press freedom in Egypt is not only about 63 Egyptian journalists bulldozed into silence in Sisi's jails, or about controlling the narrative. At stake is deductive reasoning itself.

Without an alternative narrative, Egyptians, for the most part, will continue to be the clay to the government's moulding hands, watching TV as the days pass by.

But this is an over-optimistic government that underestimates the minds of 93 million Egyptians. Some governments only learn the lesson the hard way.

Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist and analyst recently published in Ahram Online, Mada Masr, The New Arab, Muftah and Daily News Egypt. You can follow him on Twitter@cairo67unedited.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Hundreds of journalists demonstrate outside the Journalist Syndicate headquarters in Cairo on 4 May 2016 calling for the sacking of the interior minister two days after an unprecedented police raid to arrest two reporters (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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