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A profession in danger

January 24, 2014 at 12:03 pm

A group of young journalists, men and women, visited me recently to complain about the pressure that is exerted on them by their editors, particularly in the privately-owned newspapers. They say that they have been asked to favour one party over another in their coverage of events in Egypt. These pressures were only hinted at before but have been applied openly in recent months.

The seven journalists came not to affirm their complaints but to ask what they should do. They also wanted to express their freedom and search for a solution to the problem of being accused of being aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood simply because they try to perform their professional duties in a balanced way and without prejudice. One of them swore to me three times that he had absolutely no relationship with the Brotherhood and that he had never met any members knowingly in his entire life.

What sort of pressures were they talking about? They should, their editors tell them, emphasise that the Brotherhood is the aggressor, while the other parties are the victims; photograph the banners that criticise President Morsi and which speak about the rule of the Supreme Guide (of the Brotherhood); emphasise the illegitimacy of the president and the appointment of the attorney general; make constant reference to the null and void status of the constituent assembly and that the constitution was drafted by one party; overstate the number of demonstrators in the provinces and their importance; focus on the Brotherhood’s control of power and their penetration into the organs of the state; stress the movement’s persecution of the Copts and their hostility towards women. Equally, they are told to insist that there is a crisis between the President and the military and demand that the military take to the streets to seize power.

Besides all of this they should speak of the existence of a crisis between the Brotherhood and the Salafists; and accuse Hamas of conspiring against Egypt; that Hamas is the source of weapons smuggled into the country; and that Hamas was responsible for the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in Rafah last year. Finally, the young journalists should polish the image of the leaders of the National Salvation Front and boycott the leadership of the Brotherhood. Here we have damning evidence of the politicisation and distortion of the news presented to the people of Egypt and beyond in order to incite voters one way or another.

The journalists told me about discussions they held with some newspaper officials on the importance of being balanced and neutral in the news. One editor is alleged to have said that neutrality is not possible in the current confrontation taking place in Egypt. He claimed that this is being more idealistic than is necessary, which could only be tolerated in another country in different circumstances. I was amazed by what I heard and considered it an attempt to undermine the basic integrity of my profession, which emphasises the importance of neutrality in the dissemination of news and the acceptance of different opinions.

These young people expressed their own fears about apprentice journalists coming into the profession; if they want to make progress they have to be eager to please their editors. The pressure from above is crippling the new generation of journalists in their professional infancy.

What I heard placed me in a predicament because I know what should be done in such a situation. However, this carries a price; potentially a huge price. Are these young people prepared to pay that price for a clean profession by rebelling against their editors?

I feel sorry for them because of the intensity of the polarisation and transformation of the media into a partisan political tool. The recent experience of our colleague Usama Ghareeb sprang to mind. The distinguished writer was denied his daily column in one of the “liberal” newspapers because he did not toe the editorial line; he obtained another position within a week.

We are facing a danger to the whole profession by such pressure on journalists to promote bias at the expense of impartiality. In fact, the Egyptian revolution which came to liberate the masses from lies and falsehood is itself under threat. The young journalists who came to seek my advice are not alone; we are all in the same boat.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.