BEIRUT — On the face of it, the media’s role in the events in Egypt confirms prognostications made by analysts since the dawn of Arab satellite news: However their editorial policies are shaped by the foreign policy interests at home, the regional news coverage of networks like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya is immune to the state censorship that has for so long weighed on domestic broadcasters.
While satcasters such as Al-Jazeera covered the protests that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s state-owned press and TV characterized demonstrators in Tahrir Square as a small minority of foreign-sponsored hooligans bent on destabilizing the regime.
While loud protests raged in downtown Cairo, state-run Al-Nil TV showed serene videos of the Nile River.
The latent threat such media poses to authoritarian regimes is underlined by the challenges to regulating satellite TV — made evermore inexpensive by cheap technology and piracy.
The role played by mobile phones and social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook, which has been evolving since the uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon and Iran, has made state management of communication all the more difficult.
The We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, started when young Egyptian Khaled Said died in police custody in June, helped stir the growing unrest in Cairo.
The state’s frustration seemed to express itself in the attacks that pro-regime elements launched against correspondents, photographers and cameramen reporting on the Tahrir Square clashes on Feb. 2 and 3; and in the detention of Google exec Wael Ghonim, held for 12 days apparently for setting up a Facebook page devoted to the demonstrations.
After being released on Feb. 7, he wept on independent TV at the news that some 300 demonstrators had been killed since his detention. Two hours later, 70,000 people had signed up to Facebook pages supporting him.
Al-Jazeera has been a key media player in the Egyptian protests. Elements loyal to the state repeatedly targeted the satcaster’s staff for what they viewed as coverage sympathetic to the protesters.
Some suggested Al-Jazeera’s live coverage was responsible for the large turnout in the early days of the uprising when the state blacked out Internet and mobile phone communications.
The Economist’s Middle East correspondent Max Rodenbeck acknowledges the significance of Al-Jazeera, which has some 60 million Egyptian viewers, and also points to the role of other independently owned media.
Speaking by phone to Variety, he argued that the shift in the editorial line of privately owned Egyptian satcasters has been central to the protesters cause.
“They have been increasingly critical of state policies,” he says, adding that they began to peel back from the state-held line in the early days of the protests.
“Pivotal programs include ’10 p.m.,’ a three-hour chat show on Dream TV, hosted by Mona Shazly,” he says. “Another key player among the independent channels is OnTV, owned by Naguib Sawaris,” who is CEO of telco Orascom, and the 64th richest man in the world.
“The independent media began to depict the demonstrators not as criminals but as heroes. Meanwhile, the state-owned media was depicting the pro-Mubarak thugs who attacked demonstrators in Tahrir Square as ‘pro-stability forces,’ ” Rodenbeck says.
By Feb. 10, the once-monolithic edifice of the state media had cracked. A day before Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11, reporters and editors at the pro-Mubarak Al-Ahram newspaper demanded that editor-in-chief Hanan Haggag be sacked over the negative coverage of the protests.
The day after Mubarak stood down, Al-Ahram’s front page ran the banner headline: “The people ousted the regime.”
An editorial by state-run daily Al-Gomhouria called for greater transparency, complaining that “the sharks of the old regime sucked the life from Egypt.” Similar sentiments echoed in state television.
“What we witnessed,” says Rodenbeck “is a wholesale abandonment of the Mubarak regime, a wave sweeping through Egypt’s state-owned media.”
Some of Cairo’s biggest and most violent protests took place in front of the Ministry of Information — from where state TV broadcasts.
There’s no doubt that Egypt’s insurrection has changed state-owned media but it is uncertain how profound those changes will be over the medium term.
“Anas al-Fiqqi, the minister of information, has had to resign,” Rodenbeck notes, “and many more of these executives will be made to resign as well. If everything works out the way some demonstrators want, there will be no place for state-owned media any longer.”
Hisham Qassam, who publishes several independent Egyptian papers, says state media could simply wither if a new government cuts off funding.
“It’s a slow demise, it could take over a year,” he told the Associated Press. “But it’s over, it’s finished.”
The Armed Forces Supreme Council, which assumed control of the country from Mubarak, has made clear it will continue to use the state-funded outlets as a platform.
“The social welfare aspect of the state-owned media means the long-term sorting-out of things will take some time,” Rodenbeck says.
“The state media employs tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people so it will be very difficult to just shut companies immediately.”