Monday, February 21, 2011

State media, the revolution and violence: In conversation with Abdel Latif Al-Menawy


Abdel Latif Al Menawy is Head of News at ERTU - Egypt's state broadcaster. The coverage of Egypt's revolution by the country's state media complex has been widely criticised for its initial dismissal of pro-change protests and suggestions that foreign agents were fomenting unrest in Tahrir and elsewhere; following Hosni Mubarak's resignation, Al Menawy was one of those targeted by staff at Maspero, the state broadcasting headquarters, and had to be protected by the army - an incident captured on video.

I interviewed Mr Al Menawy for a general story about the state media in post-Mubarak Egypt, which can be read here. Unfortunately there wasn't room in the article to include all of Mr Al Menawy's comments, which were made over a back-and-forth email exchange on the 17th-18th February 2011, so I have published the full unedited exchange here, copied and pasted from the emails.

Jack Shenker: How do you think the state media, and in particular state television, performed in its initial coverage of the recent anti-government protests?

Abdel Latif Al-Menawy: The state media tried as much as possible not to be part of any demonstrations but to be neutral. We were very keen to only put the accurate news and at the same time show our audience the two different points of views. But to do so we had to investigate every piece of news we received from both parties’ which affected our fast pace of putting the news on air. We gave as much time to the youth of the revolution to explain and criticize and at many times answer back to the government officials who also presented their own points of view. We can only be held responsible for the
material we broadcast as news.

JS: Why did we see the tone of coverage changing in the final week before Hosni Mubarak's departure, becoming more critical of the regime and supportive of demonstrators?

AM: A changing point in our coverage happened Wednesday night the 2nd of February. During that day we received news that we thoroughly checked with our sources then of fireballs being thrown at demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The army even asked us to warn people of the fireballs as they must evacuate the square. At this point when we saw what happened we had to review our position and the accuracy of the news we are getting from our sources. This is where everyone thought we changed our tone.

JS: Does the state media still have credibility in the eyes of the Egyptian people following recent events?

AM: The famous media school of BBC says credibility comes before the scoop. So we had to check every news item before we use it on air. Egypt’s Television played this role very well. We were the main source of news to all the national and international news channels and we were quoted on Alarabyia,CNN,BBC. So we needed to be accurate and as fast as possible. We did not want to reach the point where we start denying our own news, which happened in other channels. These channels were trying to direct the Public opinion regardless of credibility. Credibility was our main aim here.

JS: What is the short-term future now for those holding senior positions in the state media complex, who are facing calls for their resignation by some members of staff?

AM: The great revolution in Tahrir Square which caused the stepping down of the president turned into small revolutions in every Egyptian institution. Any head, starting from the prime minister to the head of any small district is asked to step down too. It is not just the media. Officials who are supposed to resign are the ones who did not work according to the ethics of professionalism and did not play their role in keeping this country united. I believe that we at Egypt’s TV had worked very professionally, and were keen to keep the unity of this country at a time when all the institutions were collapsing.

JS: What is the long term future of the state media if liberalisation of the media market continues and more private competitors begin to emerge? What reforms need to take place to keep state media at the cutting edge?

AM: I always use the term public media when I speak about Egypt’s TV not the state or the government TV, because we are working for the public and not state or the government. The required changes now means that this television needs to keep playing its role in maintaining the unity of the country. And I believe public media will always be there as long as it serves the public. I believe the form and content will change but it will always be the eye of the public and its connection to the state.

JS: Mr Al Menawy - I am a British journalist based in Cairo, and hence part of a group identified by Egyptian state television news as being a 'foreign agent', with alleged links to Hamas, Israel, Iran and the USA. I was also accused of having received free meals from KFC (Kentucky) and of being part of a deliberate plot to stabilise Egypt. Both myself and my colleagues suffered exceptional violence in the streets which I believe was the direct result of these very statements that were put out on your channels. Will you please offer me a personal apology for the part you played in disseminating those lies, and an expression of regret for the violence that arose from them?

AM: Dear Sir - There is nothing personal when it comes to journalism. If you are speaking about the coverage of Egypt's TV during the days of the revolution it is all recorded. After reviewing the tapes I did not find your name, photo, video of you or association of your profession in our coverage. So obviously you were misinformed. You were not the only one who was subjected to violence during the demonstrations. One of our Arabic reporters was stabbed during a phone call on air and another was attacked. Also two of our English reporters were attacked in the demonstrations. We received calls asking for help from foreign reporters on Thursday the 3rd of February. They were being attacked by mob and rounded in Tahrir square and we informed the army right way we even sent some of our security people to help keep them safe they escaped and took cover at Ramses Hilton Hotel and our security and army kept them safe.

Concerning the foreign agents who took free meals from KFC that was not part of our news that came as an opinion in a phone call by viewer and as we believe in free speech we could not cut the caller on air. On the other hand, we gave other callers from Tahrir square the chance to disagree right after and on air also. I hate to tell you that most journalists who have worked in dangerous zones were subjected to violence and if that came as a surprise for you I think you should contact your administration.
Best of luck

JS: Dear Mr Al Menawy - I was not suggesting that I was ever identified personally - to my knowledge neither my name nor organisation was ever specifically referenced on state television, although on the night of the 25th January I was detained and beaten by state security officers and I believe there was some coverage of this in the Egyptian media (this is by no means the fault of state TV though - I mention it merely in passing).

What I am talking about is the general narrative adopted by the state media, including state television news, which in the first week of the revolution (before the baltagiyya attacks in early February) presented the view that foreigners were behind the pro-democracy protests, and that foreign journalists in particular were among the 'foreign agents' inciting unrest. Respectfully sir, I am not misinformed on this point. As you are well aware, the editorial stance of most of the state media, including the television news channels, was initially that foreigners were responsible for the street demonstrations, and were trying to disrupt Egypt - a view that was put forward by the Mubarak government and echoed uncritically in the state media.

The KFC claim may have come from a caller, but it was never investigated or discredited by your journalists and the general tone of state TV news coverage maintained the line that there was outside influence fomenting the anti-government uprising - there were even reports of Israelis being arrested by vigilante groups on the streets of Egypt, a claim that I do not believe has ever been verified as accurate. Nor did you initially give Tahrir square demonstrators the right to air their views in the early days following January 25th, nor did you offer the anti-Mubarak protests anything like the coverage afforded to the pro-Mubarak protests the following week - if you have recordings that indicate the contrary, I would be interested in seeing them.

Within the atmosphere of general uncertainty, uncritically following the government's 'foreign agents' line on the protests without investigating and verifying these claims was, as you must have been aware, certain to create a very dangerous climate for all foreigners in Egypt, journalists or not. I have lived in Egypt for three years and consider this my home - I did not 'fly in' here to cover a war zone. As a matter of fact I have reported from many violent locations, including Gaza during the last Israeli assault there, so I am hardly surprised at or unaccustomed to violence in my work. But this is irrelevant: once the police left the streets on January 28th, Cairo was not a warzone - that is until the government, supported by the state media, began to accuse the protesters of being backed by foreign powers. The result was that foreigners (and many more Egyptians) were attacked, some very seriously.

It is not unreasonable to expect the government of the country you live in not to fabricate misinformation about people from certain countries and people who do certain jobs, nor is it unreasonable to question why any responsible media professional would repeat those fabrications in the knowledge that violent retribution could be a consequence.
If you don't wish to acknowledge or apologise for the role played in this by the news output on your channels then so be it, I merely wished to offer you the opportunity. I commend you for the help you offered foreign reporters on the 3rd February, although by that stage the damage had been done, and I stand in solidarity with all those journalists and Egyptians who were killed and wounded in the uprising - please don't ever question me on that.

Kind regards, Jack

At this point, Mr Al Menawy stopped responding.


Unknown said...

It is unfathomable that this person, and other leading media figures like Al-Ahram's Usama Saraya, are continuing in their posts despite the vicious lies they've fed the Egyptian public (many of whom have built their anti-revolution stance on the basis of these lies). There is no hope of reforming such hypocrites - they need to be removed before they go into chameleon mode and convince the public they were always on their side.

Unknown said...

As a journalist, i cant thank you and commend you enough for your comments for Abdel Latif. Have been following the guardians live blog from day one, and u have all been simply majestic. 'Public tv' as he likes to call it is good at pretending to practice 'journalism' but they r a long way from there. Funny they understand the principles quite well, but fail to implement them.

Unknown said...

As a journalist, i cannot THANK YOU and commend you enough for your comments for Abdel Latif. Have been following the guardians live blog from day one, and u have all been simply majestic. Egyptian 'public tv' as he likes to call it is good at pretending to practice 'journalism' but they r a long way from there. Funny they seem to understand the principles quite well, but fail to correctly implement them.

Unknown said...

As a journalist, i cannot THANK YOU and commend you enough for your comments for Abdel Latif. Have been following the guardian's live blog from day one, and u have all been simply majestic. 'Public tv' as he likes to call it is good at pretending to practice 'journalism' but they r a long way from there. Funny they understand the principles quite well, but fail to correctly implement them.