“It is easier to be a journalist in Syria than in Egypt”

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The number of reports of arrests, harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists in Egypt, as well as, violent attacks, has increased considerably in recent months. Therefore some could argue that media has become one of the main targets of the Egyptian government.

“The latest salvo in a propaganda campaign by the state-run and pro-military news media” in Egypt is a leaked video showing the arrest of two journalists in December 2013, reports The New York Times concluding that “the goal is to paint the arrested journalists as part of a terrorist conspiracy”. Both journalists shown in the video are established correspondents who were working for the English language affiliate of Al Jazeera.

Peter Greste, is one of Al-Jazeera journalists detained on suspicion of broadcasting false news in the service of the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. He sent a letter from prison asking “how you do accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved. (…) The state will not tolerate hearing from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other critical voices. The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government.”

Many professional associations and media outlets such as CNN, BBC, Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) and others, have condemned the arrests and called the Egyptian government to put an end to their “arbitrary imprisonment” of journalists that are seen as spies or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Egyptians see a journalist as a traitor, someone who has an agenda and plot to destroy the country. The situation has deteriorated to the point that walking in the street with a camera is one of the most dangerous things”, explains Sergi Cabeza, a Spanish freelance journalist who has covered the Egyptian revolution since its beginning, during an interview.

Journalists working in Cairo denounce the hostility and violent attacks they suffer not only from the security forces, but increasingly from civilians. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, correspondent for Democracy Now in Egypt, tells the story of an Italian journalist friend who was “surrounded by an angry mob that set upon him with fists and sticks after a man began screaming that he was a member of Al Jazeera”.

Cabeza says, “it is easier to work as a journalist in Syria than in Egypt, at least it was before journalists faced to be kidnap.” He explains, “in Syria, the threat is a bomb, but you can walk in the street with a camera and you can interview anyone without being attacked. However, in Egypt you face huge hostility from the society.”

The government and its supporters say foreign media are distorting the situation in Egypt, which they argue is on the path to democracy. The Egyptian authorities have always sent the message that they seek a broad consensus, hearing and representing all the voices of society, in particular since they deposed Mohamed Morsi from the presidency last summer.

But the reports from Egypt claim that even tourists who take a picture of the Nile can be taken to the local police station because someone has confused them with journalists and reported them to the Egyptian authorities.

These incidents are just some among many that journalists in Cairo can tell. Kouddous says that these acts against media professionals “are direct result of a state-sponsored vilification campaign against journalists in general, and Al Jazeera in particulars.”

With the new anti-terrorist law, journalists are now prohibited from having or disseminating Muslim Brotherhood publications or recordings and face a possible five-year jail sentence if they violate the ban. “This prohibition and the arbitrary arrests of media personnel constitute grave threats to freedom of information in Egypt,” affirms Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Media professionals asked the Egyptian Minister of Information if interviewing a member of the Muslim Brotherhood would be considered a crime but they have not received a clear answer, although some examples incline the scale to an affirmative answer. A Dutch Journalist fled Egypt after she was accused of “fabricating news” and being member of a terrorist plot, reports The Guardian. She states that she was targeted because of meeting Aljazeera journalists in Cairo.

Where the country is heading is not very optimistic. Cairo Institute for Human Rights reports that during the referendum coverage in January the Egyptian media “have stigmatised those who hold opinions that differ from their own” and “deliberately abandoned standards of diversity and balance, choosing instead to wholeheartedly support and leaving no space for opposition or ambivalent voices.”

The Egyptian regime has silenced those voices that are critical and dissident and allowed only those that support its actions. These practices towards media and journalists remind of the ones used in another conflicts such as Yugoslavia, where divisions in society aggravated and moderate and minority voices were excluded. Cabeza defines that the current situation is seen by the Egyptian regime as a picture in black and white, “either you are with us or you are against us.”

Article published on Media Diversity Institute

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Protests in Turkey show Erdogan’s Control over Mainstream Media

Middle EAst

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While one of the biggest protests was taking place in Istanbul in decades, the mainstream media turned a blind eye to reporting what was happening in the streets. The major TV channels such as CNN Turk and NTV chose to broadcast a cooking program or a documentary about penguins, instead of showing images of the clashes during which the police used brutal force, and teargas on peaceful protesters that were trying to stop the  demolition of  Gezi Park.

The mainstream media failed to report on the initial events and fueled the anger of many Turks who questioned the media blackout.

Emre Caliskan, a Turkish freelance journalist, points out one of the main reasons, “the majority of media companies have investments in other sectors and they are afraid to lose their contracts and be in the blacklist of the government”.

The media outlets in Turkey are owned by large conglomerates with interests in other sectors such as construction, energy, finance and tourism, as the study ‘Caught in the Wheels of Power’ published by TESEV states.

“Media owners were extremely dependent on the clientelist relations with the state which enabled them to acquire tenders to undertake massive projects financed by the public. This has prevented these companies from performing the watchdog function expected from the media in established democracies”, concluded the study.

Dr. Ceren Sözeri, co-author of TESEV report and professor at Galatasary University, gives an example of the close relationship between media owners and government. “A few weeks ago, Ferit Şahenk who owns Dogus Media, one of the biggest media groups in the country, took a big public procurement from the government, a new port for Istanbul called Galataport. As Prime Minister mentions, Şahenk always says that “Thank you my Prime Minister we have expanded thanks to you”, states Ceren.

One of his channels is NTV, whose chief editor resigned and apologised for the failure to inform the public about the protests. The protesters burnt out one of NTV’s news van which stands now as a symbol at Taksim square.

Self-censorship is a common phenomenon in the Turkish media that affects in particular journalists and reporters who fear to be fired. The European Commission has reported that several journalists have lost their jobs for writing articles openly critical of the government.

“The government interpretation of freedom of speech is becoming sharper and sharper by time. If you do not share the agenda, discourse and views of the government, then you do not have space in the media to express them”, affirms Emre.

Turkey was placed near the bottom (154 of 179 countries) of the World Press Freedom index and labelled the world’s biggest prison for journalists last year by Reporters without Borders.

Some TV channels did broadcast the Gezi protest images, such as Halk TV which belongs to the opposition political party (CHP). However, the Turkish public watchdog has fined these channels for “harming the physical, moral and mental development of children and young people” by broadcasting coverage of the Gezi Park protests.

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In this case, as in the Arab protests, social media has shown to be the key channel used to report and find out what was happening in Turkey.

“The social media was very useful since the beginning. After the first attack we shared information about “where the police is”, “which way is safe” and “where to reunite”. In the first 5-6 days the news about Gezi park were only in the social media”, explains Ufuk Tanişan, who has been protesting in Gezi Park every day.

On the first night, more than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests, according to a study by New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Laboratory.

The great influence of social media was also shown when a campaign was launched on Twitter to raise money for a full-page ad to call for support in The New York Times. More than $50,000 was collected in 21 hours and the ad was published in the newspaper on 7th June.

The discourse of the government has been very critical towards social media. Erdogan defined it as “the biggest menace to society” and protesters were detained for posting “misinformation” via Twitter.

People in Turkey have turned to social media, and alternative and independent sources to inform themselves, such as Bianet, an activist media organisation with a version in English, and  What is happening in Istanbul?, a website that was created by a group of activists in Gezi. This website aims “to provide up to date and verified information on the events in Istanbul as the majority of Turkish mainstream media continues to either ignore the mass movement that we’re witnessing on the streets of Istanbul, or distort the facts”.

Ceren highlights that “one of the positive gains of the Gezi resistance is that people are more conscious about the media in the country and that small and independent media outlets will gain more importance in the near future”.

Article published at Media Diversity Institute

Media in Iraq Accused of Contributing to Sunni- Shia Division

Middle EAst

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The media in Iraq has been accused of exacerbating the sectarian tensions that already exist between Sunnis and Shia groups. Both factions own and operate many of the newspapers and radio and TV stations in Iraq, converting the media in their propaganda tool to spread their message and alienate the two Muslim societies.

Some critics have pointed the negative role that media is playing in the sectarian confrontation. There has been an increase of Sunni and Shia attacks across the country and especially in Baghdad in the last months.

Salah Nasrawi writes in Al-Ahram newspaper that “the Iraqi media and journalists are being caught in the crossfire of the country’s sectarian divisions and driven by warlords and self-centred politicians who are inflaming sectarianism for their own greedy interests”.

Overall, the Iraqi media are split into three camps – Shia, Sunni and Kurdish, each of which leans towards its own community instead of reporting on inclusive terms.

Shias accuse Sunni-owned radio and television of taking sides by presenting rumours or sectarian rhetoric and giving platforms for speakers and preachers to incite hatred. On the other side, Sunnis denounce that the Iraqi Media Network IMN, a national institution funded by the public’s taxes, is a tool of the Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki and its failure to cover on going protests in the Sunni provinces, reports Osama Al-Habahbeh on his article at International Media Support.

Facing this situation, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission has responded with a warning: “They [the media] should change their discourse and stop sectarianism.”

The current situation in Iraq brings back memories from the bloody years of sectarian confrontation between 2005 and 2008, when on average 3.000 people were killed every month and the media was used to demonise the other communities.

Dr Ibrahim Al-Marash found during his fieldwork in 2007 for his book on Iraq media that “a common perception held amongst the Iraqi public, and even journalists themselves, is that different factions have used the newspapers, radio and TV as ‘tools of war’.”

It is usually said that media can foment the conflict but also contribute the solution. In this case, the media in Iraq is being used for the former as the journalist Salah states in his article. “Iraq’s media now reflects the country’s political and religious divisions rather than being a diverse and free media and a means to inform, educate and entertain people and act as an essential instrument of nation-building”.