Middle East

Egyptian media: State misinformation amid the protests?

Protesters wave flags as they chant anti-government slogans during demonstrations against Egypt's president in Alexandria
Image caption The scenes on the street are described very differently by the state-controlled media in Egypt and international broadcasters

A well-known news anchor publicly quitting over editorial interference by Egypt's government; foreign reporters seized by security forces or roughed up by loyalist thugs; officials lambasting pan-Arab media outlets and the BBC. Are these omens for the end of days for Hosni Mubarak's rule?

Any hopes that the Mubarak government would one day embrace a free media in Egypt now lie in tatters.

As the world watched massive peaceful demonstrations calling for an end to Mr Mubarak's rule, viewers of Egyptian state-run TV have been fed a very different story.

Official broadcasts show small, if spirited, pro-Mubarak rallies, while Tahrir Square gatherings have been portrayed mainly in a context of violent instability - especially when pro-Mubarak ruffians attacked pro-democracy protesters on 2 February.

At the time of writing, the "Day of Departure" rally is being filmed by state TV from a distant rooftop, described by the Orwellian caption "Demonstrations to support stability".

Arabic commentary asserts similar events are taking place across Egypt. In effect, pro-democracy rallies have become pro-government rallies following Mr Mubarak's warnings of chaos if he leaves office.

But not every broadcaster has been so on-message. Shaheera Amin, deputy head of the English-language Nile TV, announced her resignation yesterday because she no longer wanted to participate in "their propaganda machine".

"We are not allowed to report on what's happening in Tahrir Square," Ms Amin told the BBC. "We're just covering the pro-Mubarak rallies, which I thought was ridiculous."

Independent voices

The sheer numbers of anti-Mubarak protesters show many Egyptians are happy to turn a deaf ear to what they see as a discredited state-controlled mouthpiece.

They can get their information from the internet, or international satellite broadcasters, and - ironically in today's political climate - they may have benefited from efforts by Mr Mubarak's son, Gamal, to open up the media.

Image caption Tanks were positioned outside the Egyptian state's TV building in Cairo as the protests flared

In recent years, independent newspapers have been allowed to voice vigorous criticism of government officials, although the president and state institutions are off-limits under draconian criminal libel laws.

Even the state-owned press, like the venerable al-Ahram founded in 1875, have inched towards a more diverse range of opinion, though controversial opinions are conveyed in cryptic or coded language.

"The Egyptian media includes many courageous voices and they have done a great job in the last few years," says Egyptian journalist Hosni Imam, who heads the Foreign Press Association in London.

What he calls the "earthquake" now rocking Egypt presents opportunities for the media to take up, but also major challenges to be overcome.

"It is clear the ministry of information's power has waned," he said. "After the 'Battle of the Camel' (in Tahrir Square on 2 February), it was silent, showing it has lost the plot. The state is collapsing.

"But it is not easy to become free in a single moment, after decades of journalists being made to suppress information."

'Israeli agents'

But this is more than a game of media cat-and-mouse after decades of state interference and manipulation.

As Egypt's rulers struggle to handle the phenomenon of People Power in city centres, they have turned on the independent media in a classic display of "shoot the messenger" behaviour.

First rumours were spread that Israeli agents where posing as foreign journalists in the country to foment the unrest. Officials alleged external media outlets - including the BBC - were biased, distorted and even seditious.

On Wednesday, as violence was convulsing Tahrir Square, foreign journalists found themselves being seized and mistreated by security forces or beaten up by pro-Mubarak mobs.

Many were accused of deliberately undermining Egypt's stability by misrepresenting the protests.

"The thugs of the regime are conducting a vendetta against journalists, who are not part of the story and should be allowed to cover it freely," says Hosni Imam.

"Instead of going with its dignity and honour intact, by doing this the government is tarnishing its own reputation - the world is watching."

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