Egypt’s Media War Is Almost as Nasty as the One in the Streets

Egypt’s Media War Is Almost as Nasty as the One in the Streets

A leaflet distributed outside Al Jazeera’s offices in Cairo, reading "the lies and the other lies" — a play on the station’s slogan, "the opinion and the other opinion." 

CAIRO — As the Cairo press corps gathered for a press conference with a spokesman for the Egyptian military, some journalists reserved their harshest criticism for one of their own. Before the beginning of the event, which was intended to shed light on this morning’s violence, members of the press chanted for the removal of an Al Jazeera reporter. As the reporter left amid cheers from the crowd, the military spokesman assured the audience that he supported freedom of the press and that "Egypt is a country of freedom and democracy."

It wasn’t the first obstacle faced by Al Jazeera, which is accused by foes of deposed President Mohamed Morsy of being too sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera English correspondent Sherine Tadros tweeted pictures of two leaflets being handed out near the bureau’s office in Cairo. "A bullet may kill a man, but a lying camera kills a nation," reads one of leaflets.

Al Jazeera isn’t the only media outlet that’s under fire. Across the country, there’s a media divide — full of overheated rhetoric that wipes out any potential for middle ground — that mirrors how politics are playing out on the street right now. How the country can come together after this shock, or even agree on a single narrative about what happened, remains a mystery.

Among American stations, CNN has come in for the most grief for what anti-Morsy demonstrators view as its unsympathetic coverage. Protesters criticized the network’s immediate decision to call the events a "coup" and blasted the network for labeling an anti-Morsy demonstration in Tahrir as supporting the deposed president. Some protesters have carried signs reading "CNN supports terrorism," while Egyptians in New York City organized a march to protest the network’s coverage.

Like Egyptian citizens themselves, the media increasingly appears to be operating in two separate universes. While Islamist channels were shuttered shortly after the military takeover, some anti-Morsy outlets have given their readers the impression that the nation was unanimously in support of the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall from power.

Al-Gomhoreya (The Republic), a newspaper with a staunchly anti-Islamist stance, has largely ignored the sizable protests in support of Morsy. Its front page currently makes no mention of the killing of dozens of pro-Morsy protesters at Cairo’s Republican Guard headquarters today — its headline currently reads, "Our revolution … is not a coup." Another article quoted "judicial sources" revealing that the Muslim Brotherhood had sabotaged an investigation into an attack on a prison during Egypt’s 2011 uprising, and that the case would not be reopened.

The television coverage is just as politicized, according to Adel Abdel Ghafar, a visiting fellow at the American University of Cairo. On anti-Morsy stations, the struggle is increasingly portrayed as a battle against terrorism rather than a contest between two political forces. Abdel Ghafar noted the message that decorated the bottom of the screen during a program by satellite channel CBC that played a triumphant video of the massive anti-Morsy protests in Tahrir: "Against terrorism."

"It has become acceptable to say ‘the terrorists of Rabaa al-Adaweya,’" Abdel Ghafar said, referring to the site of a major pro-Morsy sit-in. "Meanwhile, of course, the people in Tahrir are referred to as ‘revolutionaries’."

For many of the media big shots involved in this feud, it’s not only about politics — it’s personal. During Morsy’s defiant June 27 speech, he mentioned CBC owner Mohamed el-Amin and Dream owner Ahmed Bahgat by name, accusing them of tax fraud. The two stations have returned the favor by blasting the Islamist opposition at every chance following the military takeover.

The media outlets of the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, haven’t been any better. The movement’s official website ran an article claiming that the military-appointed president, Adly Mansour, was secretly a Jew, though it then pulled the piece. The Brotherhood’s political party also published pictures of dead children that it said were killed during the bloodshed at the Republican Guard headquarters, but which were really taken in Syria. The Egyptian military spokesman seized on this mistake at today’s press conference, saying it was evidence of a "campaign of lies and psychological warfare" against the state. It was just the latest salvo in what has become an increasingly ugly media war.