Twenty-first century TV viewers expect news coverage to be dramatic and powerful, irrespective of the day’s actual events. News producers are generally more than happy to oblige.
After all it doesn’t take much to transform a story. Some bombastic music here, a few ominous lines there and even the most banal piece has the potential to enthrall.
Exaggeration is the name of the game. So it should come as no surprise that news coverage of Egypt’s pig slaughter was positively apocalyptic.
All the TV channels seemed to be broadcasting the same slow motion footage of squealing pigs desperately trying to evade capture, alongside angry Christians throwing stones at the police.
So how much of the coverage was hype? And was the issue covered differently in the rest of the Arab world?
Several weeks ago, when swine flu was first discovered in Mexico, some countries contemplated the possibility of implementing a travel ban, while others considered providing their citizens with masks.
The Egyptian government came up with a more aggressive solution to the problem. They decided to exterminate all of the country’s 300,000 pigs.
The measure seemed excessive to both the World Health Organization and the UN, who repeatedly stated that there was no danger posed by eating pig meat.
Nonetheless, Egypt decided to go ahead with the cull.
Thousands of Coptic farmers protested the decision, culminating in clashes between farmers and the police in Mokattam. The incident quickly became a media favorite, a great opportunity to investigate the topic de jour.
The reaction to the cull on Egyptian satellite channels was openly critical, and this in turn was a firm reminder of how much the media in Egypt has changed in the last five years.
The two most popular Egyptian talk shows, “Ten o’Clock in the Evening” and “90 Minutes,” took a similar approach to the topic.
Both programs questioned the necessity of the pig cull. They also expressed concern about how the pig slaughter would affect the Christian population of Egypt.
But hosts on the two programs refused to view the issue through a sectarian lens. Perhaps they were worried that they might fuel differences further by speculating on the cause of the problem.
It was a different story, however, for other Arab channels in the region.
Al Jazeera Arabic seized the opportunity to criticize Egypt for its careless handling of the situation and repeatedly implied that Christians were the victims of a hate campaign.
Many Egyptians believed Al Jazeera’s attack to be the latest phase of a concerted effort by the channel to destroy Egypt’s image in the region.
Ahmed Fawzy, a middle-aged taxi driver, told Al-Masry Al-Youm: “They [Al Jazeera] hate us because they are jealous that we are the regional leader. They know that we are doing the right thing by exterminating these pigs but they want to ruin our reputation. It’s really obvious, everyone knows about it.”
And while Al Arabiya seemed to tread a similar line to that of Al Jazeera, the American funded Al Hurra pushed the sectarian angle even further.
Producers on the channel’s one hour talk program “The True Vision” decided to invite the controversial head of the US Copts Association Michael Meunier, along with two other analysts based in Egypt.
Meunier’s organization has become infamous over the years for its wild claims of Christian persecution and its demands for religious equality in Egypt. With that in mind, other guests on the panel were only mildly surprised when Meunier described the pig cull as part of a racist attack against the Coptic minority.
But when Meunier said that the recent slaughter was evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood were the ones actually in power, everyone was stunned. To make such an outlandish claim in asserting that the banned Islamist group was running the show took everyone by surprise.
Pausing for effect afterwards, Meunier looked at the camera and smirked. It seemed, to an outsider, like the deliberate action of a provocateur, someone determined to ruffle feathers.
The host of the show did not miss a beat, immediately spotting the opportunity for more conflict and mayhem on his program. Was he complicit in such a blatant grab for attention?
Few of the channels in Egypt and the Arab world bothered to follow up on the pig cull after the momentum died down. None appeared interested in covering the aftermath of the slaughter.
The truth is that the vast majority of Egypt’s pigs are still alive and well. Only a very small portion of the government’s proposed cull has actually been carried out.
Some farmers even believe they will eventually be left alone as swine flu becomes less of a pressing issue. We spoke to Salah Abdullah, a pig famer in Moqattam: “My pigs are healthy! I have had them tested. I don’t think anyone is going to take them away. After some time the whole swine flu scare will die down and no one will bother us anymore.”