The bloody October 9 clashes between Coptic protesters and the military outside the Radio and Television building in Maspiro, Cairo, have revealed a submerged yet established ideological split between state-owned and private media.
The media battle, some have said, is a repeat of Tahrir Square during the first two weeks of the January 25 revolution, when state television positioned itself in direct opposition to private channels.
Within minutes of the violence, state-run Channel One TV presenter Rasha Magdy announced that armed Coptic demonstrators were firing at the military. She called on Egypt’s ‘good citizens’ to rush to Maspiro and protect the army.
State media broadcast footage of chaotic scenes at an unidentified hospital and interviewed soldiers being treated for unconsciousness and tear gas inhalation.
“They fired at us for no reason, we were there to protect their protest,” said one, immediately after regaining consciousness. “Why did they attack us? One of my friends in our unit was shot to death by the Copts. Copts, sons of dogs.”
Two soldiers had been ‘martyred’, Magdy announced, and another 20 injured. No figures were given of casualties among the Coptic protesters.
State television aired live footage of police vehicles and armoured personnel carriers on fire, filming from a vantage point overlooking the street where protesters had earlier converged. Privately owned networks reported from the ground.
Phone calls from military supporters were taken on state television, which failed to interview protesters or eyewitnesses. This was left to Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr and ONTV, among others.
Social media, social responsibility
Social media was full of anger towards the state media’s coverage. Less than two hours into the violence, images of dead protesters emerged.
Private networks began to air amateur video from social media, which appeared to show an armoured personnel carrier ploughing into protesters. Images of demonstrators with shattered skulls were seen.
Troy Carter, student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), tweeted that he’d seen men armed with sticks and some with swords heading to join riot police. He filmed street battles, including one where riot police, reinforced by hundreds of civilians, were seen throwing rocks at protesters.
For its part, state television showed dozens of military police and civilians beating unidentified people at Maspiro, but provided no commentary or analysis.
To demonstrate the dichotomy between the two, BBC Arabic later interviewed Copts who admitted throwing rocks and hitting the military with sticks, but only after being fired upon and ‘bulldozed’ by military vehicles.
Accusations of the state media inciting sectarian violence grew, leading one caller to demand that the Egyptian cabinet pass a law criminalising hate speech.
“After state television interviewed a soldier who said he was attacked by Copts, ‘Muslims’ took to the streets to attack,” said Ragia Mostafa, a journalism student at AUC. “They were walking around looking at people's wrists to beat up those who have the tattoo of the Cross identifying them as Copts.”
'State media coverage constitutes a crime'
Rasha Abdulla, an associate professor of journalism at AUC, spent that evening flicking between state and private media, comparing the two.
“The state television coverage of the Maspiro incidents constitutes an actual crime of incitement to hatred and incitement to violence, and is an absolute professional disaster,” she said. “There were no lines between fact and opinion, and what was presented as fact was extremely biased, and lacked any sense of professionalism or minimal ethical standards.”
Private media tried, with varying degrees of success, to produce balanced reports.
“They were trying to bring in as many eyewitnesses as possible, as well as political and social analysts. Some also managed to get Ossama Heikal, the minister of information, on the line, who mostly said they were being too harsh [about] state coverage,” explained the academic.
Even as the death toll rose to 22, state television still failed to acknowledge Coptic fatalities.
Inspired by social media, which had been posting pictures of the dead and injured for hours, private media showed a photograph of Viviane, a young Coptic woman refusing to let go of her deceased fiancé as he lay in a makeshift morgue. Four other bodies lay next to his.
The fires are out, but the battle burns
By the time the fires along the Corniche in Maspiro were going out, state media’s reputation had taken a massive hit. A Facebook page calling for a boycott emerged two days later and currently counts more than 53,000 fans.
While ONTV and ONTV Live hosted Viviane, who gave her account of her fiancé dying while protecting her from armed gangs and military police, media pundits complained about the state media’s inflammable coverage. Heikal and the military were forced to hold press conferences and interviews defending their accounts.
On October 11, a lawyer for the Helal Center for Freedoms and Human Rights filed a lawsuit against Heikal accusing him of inciting violence against Copts. As the backlash grew, some journalists working for state media joined the chorus of criticism.
On October 15, talk show host Mona El Shazly said that Heikal had received a four-page report of the media's coverage from a committee he had established. State television's coverage was not impartial or balanced and while private media made mistakes too, government run networks should strive for higher standards, read the report. It is unclear if Heikal will publish the findings.
In the midst of the media’s apparent, perhaps momentary, relapse, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information cited several episodes of censorship and seizure of newspapers. It said that a number of journalists and bloggers have been prevented from entering the country.
In developing countries, state media can inform and educate. In Egypt’s case, this is crucial ahead of the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections.
Many Egyptians are left confused by the last-minute amendments to the electoral law, the statements made by presidential candidates and the platforms of more than 300 political groups, parties and associations. The coverage of the events on October 9 has left them even more distrustful of the media ahead of the key elections.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is an associate professor of practice at the Journalism Department at the American University in Cairo. Troy Carter and Ragia Mostafa are two of his students.