When Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president after the 2011 revolution, was in power, nearly all media outlets opposed him. A handful of Islamist television channels increasingly supported him, but the bulk of the channels and newspapers that found their way into the average Egyptian home relentlessly attacked him.
After a military-led coalition overthrew Morsi in 2013, the new regime was not about to make the same mistake. It set about imposing control over the dissemination of information, from state-controlled Friday sermons at mosques to curbing media freedoms gained after the revolution.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister and later president, enjoyed near deity-like reverence from the media. He was hailed as the hero who had saved the country from the Muslim Brotherhood, and was given unending support in his crusade against its members. Outspoken talk show hosts showered him with praise at every opportunity, and viciously attacked anyone who tried to question his policies or decisions.
When the government violently dispersed a peaceful sit-in supporting the ousted Morsi in 2013, killing at least 1,000 people, state-run media, as well as private channels owned by rich businessmen, were quick to hail this as ‘a victory against terrorism’.
The transformation of the media was deliberate and sometimes ruthless. Rules were passed that directly curbed journalistic freedoms, and made it impossible to report anything the government did not approve of. For example, in August 2015, the government passed a law that imposed hefty fines on any journalist who reported causalities in Sinai from military operations against Islamists from a source other than the military spokesperson. The first draft of this law proposed a two-year prison sentence, but this was scrapped after a backlash from journalists.
Yet even before al-Sisi became president, the military had started to extend its influence over the media. On a leaked phone call recording from al-Sisi’s office, two senior army personnel can be heard discussing the messages they wanted to feed to their loyal journalists to urge people to vote for al-Sisi in the next presidential elections.
These loyal journalists have become a mouthpiece for the government, repeating the same messages and supporting without question the policies imposed. Extensive airtime and column inches are devoted to telling the public that things are going well, even while the economic situation continues to deteriorate, forcing more people into poverty.
Critics of al-Sisi or the army are quickly denounced in the media. Mohamed ElBaradei was a prominent Egyptian politician after the revolution and a supporter of the removal of Morsi. However, when he resigned from the government in protest against the mass killing of Islamic protestors in 2013, he was almost unanimously branded as a traitor in the media. When Essam Heggy, a prominent Egyptian scientist in the United States and a previous aide to al-Sisi, criticized the president and announced a presidential committee to challenge him in elections, he met a similar fate.
Journalists who chose to change their stance or condemn the president, his government or his policies were also vilified and often banned from reporting. When Bassem Youssef, a satirist who regularly attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, turned his attention to al-Sisi, his very popular TV show was cancelled. He was eventually forced to flee to the United States. Amr al-Leithy, another popular talk show host, also had his show cancelled after he broadcast a segment in which a tuk-tuk driver aired his grievances about al-Sisi and the deteriorating economic and social conditions in the country.
In these conditions, self-censorship has become the norm for a large number of journalists. Fear of hefty fines that can end a career or a newspaper, or fear of the government backlash silences many journalists. Some have labelled this a ‘nationalistic responsibility’ as the state fights terrorism; others say it is necessary to support the country during tough economic times. Editors have pledged to report ‘more responsibly’, which is seen by many as the newspapers imposing further censorship on their journalists.
The government has succeeded in building a strong base to control journalists and the media in Egypt. Many have fallen in line, and often are rewarded for doing so. Those who try to resist are frequently harassed, with allegations of ‘reporting false news’ the easiest way to clamp down further on media freedom.