Egypt's state-run media starting to shift from pro-Mubarak coverage

By Leila Fadel and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 8:17 PM

CAIRO - Over the past few days, journalists working for Egyptian state media have orchestrated a remarkable uprising of their own: They have begun reporting news that casts the embattled government in a negative light.

Whether the change is a sign of a weakened regime that is losing control or the result of a decision by the government to loosen its grip on information remains unclear. But the shift has been hard to miss.

State-run television and newspapers such as the iconic al-Ahram initially dismissed the mass demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak as nonevents. As the crisis has unfolded since Jan. 25, most people have relied on Arabic satellite channels such as al-Jazeera and news accounts from independent Egyptian dailies and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to keep up with events.

As protests against Mubarak's nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule intensified, state television reported on the first lady's gardens and call-in shows featured hysterical women and men entreating people to stop demonstrating. Protesters began carrying banners in Cairo's central Tahrir Square denouncing state-run media and calling the news organizations "liars."

A day after pro-Mubarak forces were unleashed into Tahrir Square last week, inciting a bloody battle that left thousands wounded, al-Ahram reported on its front page that millions of government supporters had flooded the streets, grossly exaggerating their numbers. State television called the anti-Mubarak demonstrators "destabilizing" forces and accused foreign powers of instigating instability.

"During the first 10 days or so, the Egyptian media was shameful," said Rasha Abdulla, chairwoman of the journalism and mass communication program at the American University in Cairo. "It was like they were living on another planet."

But in recent days, state media organizations have started to shift their coverage.

At al-Ahram, after journalists signed a petition telling management that they were frustrated with the paper's reporting, chief editor Omar Saraya changed his tune. Saraya, who is close to the government and is seen as a staunch regime loyalist, wrote a front-page column praising the "nobility" of the "revolution" and urging the government to carry out constitutional and legislative reforms.

At state-run Nile TV, after two of her colleagues quit, Reem Nour met with her boss and told him that she could not tolerate being censored. She said last week that she would not cover pro-Mubarak demonstrators unless she was permitted to cover anti-government demonstrators as well.

The 22-year-old reporter told her news director that people were laughing at the station's coverage. He told her to go out and report, she said. On Monday, for the first time, she told her viewers that protesters were demanding that the regime resign.

"There has been a shift," Nour said. "The shift is happening because there is going to be a change in Egypt after this revolution."

Hisham Qasim, an independent newspaper publisher in Egypt, called the change in state media coverage a clear sign that "Mubarak is slowly losing control."

"There's a feeling that [Mubarak] is going down and nobody can help him so it's time to save face," Qasim said.

Pressure from journalists began to increase late last week, after two al-Ahram reporters were killed during demonstrations and the government rounded up dozens of journalists, including employees of state newspapers.

Some joined protesters in Tahrir Square, calling for freedom of expression. Some are turning on their bosses, calling them apologists for the regime.

But a revolt by journalists was probably not the only reason for the change in coverage, Abdulla said. Senior Egyptian officials must have signed off on editorial changes that have led to more straightforward reporting in recent days.

"Nothing in state television happens because journalists want it to happen," she said. "They all wait for orders to come from above."

Shahira Amin resigned Feb. 3 from Nile TV after she watched mobs attack anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square and saw vehicles run over unarmed civilians, all on Arabic satellite channels.

The anchorwoman said she had not been allowed to portray the protests honestly and could not tell her viewers that the demonstrators' top demand was the resignation of Mubarak. Another reporter resigned from the channel a few days later in protest.

"We were dictated what to say and we were reading press releases from the Ministry of Interior," Amin said. "I couldn't be a mouthpiece for someone who slaughters his own people."

Since her resignation, she has spent every day on the streets, demonstrating against the government. She said she has seen the coverage change. "This could be the start of a liberal media in Egypt," Amin said. "I hope it's not just a cosmetic change."

Special correspondent Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.

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