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Does the Egyptian Media Need a Revolution?

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Al-Tahrir, CBC, Masr 25. These private television channels are among the many news media outlets that have sprung up in Egypt since the forced resignation of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak around 14 months ago. Opposition political figures who once had little or no access to the news media are suddenly being heard on television and in many of the new newspapers.

And yet there is this paradox: Egypt plunged down 39 spots from 129 to 166 on the 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.

Whether the index is an accurate measure can be debated, but press freedom advocates and journalists themselves say it certainly reflects that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that is currently governing Egypt, has maintained much of the censorship and media controls of before, especially in entrenched state media.

"State TV has not dropped its propagandist tone but restrictions are looser," says Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa's program coordinator at Committee to Protect Journalists. "People like [opposition leader] Mohamed ElBaradei have come on state TV, something that couldn't have happened before. But fabricated reports are still issued of those critical of current authorities."

The military council, which is supposed to be leading Egypt through a transition to democracy, is particularly strict on news reports about the military itself, in either the state or new private media. All stories on the military must be approved by the Armed Forces Morale Affairs Department prior to being broadcasted or published. "In the old days, Mubarak was the red line," said Khaled Dawoud, a journalist for Al Ahram, the leading government-owned paper, said. "Today it is the ruling military council."

Limiting the impact of the private media eruption is that is most of the newcomers are sensationalistic in their coverage, in addition to being politically very segmented.

"Some channels are pro-revolution, others are against it, Muslim channels, Coptic channels," says Shahira Amin, former deputy head of state-owned Nile TV. "State TV has opened up a bit but is still very much under government control because the new Minister of Information is a military personnel himself."

"The opening up seems to be based on individual efforts rather than a system that's changed," she says. "Some employees have staged a sit-in in recent weeks calling for an end to censorship and asking the military to lift their hands off the media."

Such courageous acts have resulted in unfavorable consequences for many of those journalists. Last August, Dina Abdel Rahman, host of the popular Dream Morning show on Dream TV, was sacked from her job the day after she challenged Abdel Monam Kato, a former air force major general, who declared that the Egyptian military was educating the public on "KG1 democracy." Since then, Abdel Rahman has been hosting an evening talk show on a small private satellite channel where she still continues to test the red lines of politics.

Similarly, popular talk show host, Hafez Al Mirazi, joined the ranks of other broadcasters to resign from his job. This move came after Ahmed Bahgat, the owner of Dream TV that he worked for, prevented him from showing a video of Magdi el Gallad, editor-in-chief of El Masry el Youm, where Gallad voiced support for presidential candidate, Gamal Mubarak. Mirazi refused to return to work until Dream TV aired the full episode. In the end, he had to quit his position as Bahgat, who is closely associated with the Mubarak regime, said that broadcasting the video would anger the public, hence turning them against Gallad.

The partisan divisions in the news media, meanwhile, may be contributing to the deep political and social cleavages in the presently tense Egyptian society. One such division is that between some groups of Muslims and Copts. A significant amount of violence between the two groups has been reported since Mubarak stepped down. One of the biggest of these was in October 2011 when 28 people were killed and at least 325 injured by the police forces, after a group of mostly Copts and some Muslims led a peaceful protest against the demolition of a church in Upper West Egypt.

Still, the Egyptian media landscape has felt some rays of sunshine. Some channels have gained a reputation for credibility, while some talk shows that openly discuss social and political issues are hugely popular.

"I would say that ONTV is the most credible channel we have at the moment says Amin "Also, 25 January channel, which is really about the people and this is great because we never had that before. Egyptians are glued to their TV sets every night watching four or five talk shows on the different channels but I would say the most popular are Yossri Foda's show on ONTV, Ibrahim Eissa's on Tahrir, Mona Shazly's on Dream TV and Hafez El Mirazi's."

And what about the foreign reporters in Egypt? The sexual assault of Lara Logan at Tahrir Square during the revolution painted a dire image of the kind of actions foreign correspondents have to be prepared to face in Egypt. Some hostility to the foreign new media remains. In the past few months, security forces have often attacked international journalists and their equipment have been seized and confiscated.

Foreign journalists also have to confront mixed reactions from the Egyptian public. "Some are eager to talk them, while others are skeptical because the level of xenophobia is so high right now after state media spread rumors about spies and so forth," says Amin.

On another note, locals can be seen actively tweeting and having very lively debates on Facebook about the way forward for Egypt. But the significant rise in citizen journalism has spelt imprisonment for some of the most prominent bloggers for expressing their views. Bloggers Maikel Nabil was arrested in March of 2011 and Alaa Abdel Fattah was too in the same year in October. Abdel Fattah was accused of inciting violence against the army during the mass protest clashes but many believe that these are trumped up charges.

So what direction is the Egyptian media now headed towards? "So much of it depends on how hard journalists are willing to fight. If the dust settles from this, then the political reorganization is going to settle," says Abdel Dayem.