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Media crackdown

Kristen McTighe, CairoJuly 12, 2013

Following the attack on pro-Morsi supporters in which 50 people were killed, conflicting reports emerged from both sides. A press conference was called by military leaders to help shed light on what had happened.

Egyptian photographers holding up their cameras
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When the Cairo Press Corps gathered, instead of seeking answers from the army, the scene quickly descended into chaos when local journalists stood up to demand that Al-Jazeera Arabic - long seen as sympathetic to Islamists - leave. The Al Jazeera crew packed up and left and the military spokesman began.

"Egypt is a country of freedom and democracy," declared the general to open the press conference. When it came to an end, reporters, without asking further questions, stood up to cheer.

In the wake of the overthrow of the country's first democratically elected president, Islamist television channels have been shut down, journalists arrested and their equipment confiscated. In a country of extreme polarization, the military leaders that ousted former President Mohammed Morsi have swiftly moved to control the narrative of recent events and the media has given the impression that the country was unanimously in support of the military's intervention.

State media has failed to challenge the military's version of the events at the Republican Guard barracks. During the attack, state television channels broadcast very little about the incident, with one state television station airing a religious program and another an interview with an officer assuring the people that the army would protect security.

In newspapers, the former president's supporters were referred to as terrorists or armed men. State-run newspaper Al-Akhbar published an image of soldiers swooping in to save wounded friends.

Familiar pattern

However dramatic it has been, what has happened to the state media following Morsi's ouster has taken on a familiar pattern to what transpired after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. When the military junta first came to power, state media moved to support the generals. With the election of Morsi and the so-called Brotherhoodization of state institutions, the former president named his Islamist allies to key positions like state newspaper Al Ahram's editor, shifting the media's support toward the Brotherhood.

Egyptian journalists tape their mouths and raise their pens during a demonstration against the draft constitution (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
The current situation is reminiscent of the media clampdown under Hosni MubarakImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Now it has become evident that the media has once again backed the military. "Since the first day, it's basically turned back and they are back in the pro-military camp," said Adel Abdel Ghafar, a visiting fellow at the American University of Cairo. "Whoever is in power, state media will support."

For private media, their relationship with the new government has undergone a dramatic u-turn compared to the situation under Morsi, where many were attacked for critical coverage. Just weeks ago, the president had named and shamed two owners of a private television channels and accused them of tax fraud in a speech broadcast to the nation just days before massive protests that led to his ouster. Under his presidency, several dissenting journalists faced legal charges and others were ordered off air.

Amr Hosny, an Egyptian journalist working at the Cairo bureau of Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida, said much has changed in Egypt's media landscape since the fall of Morsi. Under the former president, he says he was threatened after publishing a story critical of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now as the media has changed tune, he faces new challenges.

"Private media is completely in support of the army, no one can criticize them. They are Mubarak's men," said Hosny. "On the other hand, Islamists at pro-Morsi protests won't allow Egyptian journalists to enter."

Egyptian media has not been the only target of the media war. Bringing back memories of the 2011 revolt, the military began accusing foreign media outlets of spreading misinformation and "inciting sedition between the people and its army."

Foreign media targeted

When Dirk Emmerich, a journalist with German television network RTL and n-tv, arrived at the headquarters of the Republican Guard on the morning of the attacks on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, he and his crew were arrested by soldiers.

"Where are you from? Are you CNN, BBC?" Emmerich said they asked.

He was detained for seven hours and Emmerich said he repeatedly asked why, but officers gave no answer. Eventually they were given their equipment and phones back and he immediately took to Twitter to recount his ordeal. Shortly afterwards, authorities released him.

In the end, Emmerich was never given a reason for his detention, but says he believes it was due to their nervousness following the shootings combined with a contempt for major foreign media outlets.

Poster in Tahir square condemning Al-Jazeera channel Copyrights: Nael Eltoukhy
Al Jazeera was one of many international media outlets targeted by the militaryImage: DW/N. Eltoukhy

"The military had the idea that it has to control everybody and everything in this area," said Emmerich. "We felt their strong reservation about the foreign media, especially CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera."

Foreign media has also come under attack from anti-Morsi protesters, with Al Jazeera and CNN in particular bearing the brunt of scorn for what the anti-Morsi followers perceive as sympathetic coverage toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

Leaflets reading "A bullet may kill a man, but a lying camera kills a nation," were handed out near the station's headquarters. Protesters against CNN on Tahrir Square carried signs that read "CNN supports terrorism," and crowds turned hostile against foreign journalists, many reporting they were unable to work for safety reasons.

But with Islamist media shut down, Morsi's supporters have instead taken to the internet, live streaming and diffusing information via social media. Some have begun using hashtags of #Military_Coup and #Legitimacy to drive home their message. They have also taken to using international media.

Close look

"Now the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to come back with the media message that it is a coup," said Ghafar. "They've published editorials in the Guardian, in the Washington Post and they have been able to get their message out, more effectively outside Egypt than inside."

Yet, they too have come under criticism. After the events at the Republican Guard barracks, leaders of the group published photos of children allegedly killed in the clashes that were then discovered to be from Syria, or other photos of protesters claiming to be at anti-Morsi gatherings.

Although the media war playing out in Egypt does not show signs of abating anytime soon, Ghafar says that unlike ever before, Egyptians have become critical of the coverage.

"People are increasingly wary and looking to a variety of places other than just state and private media," Said Ghafar. "The media landscape is changing there are different venues of media, people have different newspapers, they can go online, so that in itself is a good thing."