Media moguls struggle to keep their biases in check

Over the past year and a half, the same news anchors were seen pleading with protesters in Tahrir Square to let then-President Hosni Mubarak finish his term – then celebrating his overthrow.

They revered protesters as freedom fighters only to call them thugs on other occasions; they warned of conspiracies orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and then congratulated the group’s presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsy, on winning the race against former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq.

Driven by the interests of its mostly liberal owners, most of Egypt’s privately owned media sided with the old regime against the Brotherhood in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the next president, dropping the pro-revolution facade they had developed over the past year. With Morsy now officially ruling the country, another shift of bias should be expected.

Businessmen have the final word

A small group of mostly liberal and often politicized businessmen control most of Egypt’s private media, which developed over the last decade of Mubarak’s rule, as the regime loosened its iron grip over the airwaves and the printing houses.

These private newspapers and TV channels grew accustomed to dealing with political red lines, with some at times also playing an oppositional role. In the year and a half since the revolution began, they have continually shifted their biases in line with the changing balance of power, as they attempt to negotiate protecting their interests while maintaining popularity.

“The media forms public opinion. You would have to be a saint not to be tempted by this power,” says Hisham Kassem, a longtime publisher.

Kassem says that for many businessmen, the media can be used to settle old scores, bid for services that would advance their business and gain access to the government. Privately owned media in Egypt is only regulated by the investments law, with no laws to prevent the abuse or monopoly of media by businesses.

Private TV channels and papers are owned by wealthy men with liberal leanings who made fortunes in construction, real-estate, telecommunications and other industries. Many also have ties to the old regime.

Kassem says the fact that most media outlets in Egypt are owned by wealthy individuals hurts independent and balanced reporting. Instead of pursuing stories objectively, media moguls see their enterprises as tools to further their political agendas. Kassem is trying to start a publicly listed media company, with no one anchor investor to avoid this problem.

The owners of newspapers or TV channels often become directly involved in directing coverage. Al-Dostour newspaper, which is owned by businessman Reda Edward, waged a full-blown war against the Brotherhood after the announcement that Morsy would move to the runoff vote. Reda first emerged in the public sphere as the owner of the International BBC schools in the 1990s. He entered political life a decade later as a member of the Wafd Party.

The paper published unfounded accusations against the Brotherhood on a daily basis until the Islamist group pressed charges last week, when the paper published what it alleged was a transcript of a secret meeting at the Freedom and Justice Party headquarters.

The transcript ran under the headline, “The massacre of the century in Egypt,” with Al-Dostour accusing the Brotherhood of plotting assassinations and an armed coup if Morsy lost.

Mohamed Faisal, Al-Dostour’s chief political editor, says that attacking the Muslim Brotherhood was a collective decision by editorial staff to oppose the group’s domination of politics.

“This was a paper policy. We took a stand against the domination of one [group] over the political scene, whoever that may be,” Faisal says.

Faisal says Edward interferes in the content of the paper and takes up issues with the editor-in-chief.

“Sometimes he’s convinced [by the editor] and sometimes he interferes,” Faisal says. “It’s between him and the editor-in-chief. We find out the results later.”

Shifting biases

Many news outlets, such as the satellite channels Al-Nahar, Al-Hayat and Al-Mehwar, intensified their attacks on Islamists, and openly supported figures from the old regime in recent weeks. The trend has been especially dramatic at ONTV, which was previously considered the channel most supportive of the revolution.

As the race between Morsy and Shafiq heated up, the channel increasingly sided with Shafiq in its coverage. Ahead of the runoff, Naguib Sawiris, the telecom tycoon who owns ONTV, said on his Twitter account that the race was a choice between a civil or religious state.

“They propagated the myth that the race is now between the civil and the religious state, when it is actually between the revolution and the old regime,” says Wael Kandil, the managing editor of privately owned newspaper Al-Shorouk.

During the weeks leading up to the runoff, the channel almost exclusively hosted Shafiq’s supporters as guests. The liberal Islamist Wasat Party announced that the channel refused to host former Islamist MP Essam Sultan, and other anti-Shafiq figures were also allegedly banned from the channel.

An ONTV producer who prefers to remain anonymous says owners stood by their staff in the months following Mubarak’s resignation, when the channel was known to side with the revolution against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Despite the military council’s pressure on the anchors and owners, the producer says the management refused to interfere.

However, he says owners started interfering when the competition was perceived to be between civil and religious powers. Whether that pressure came from the military council or directly from the owners is something neither the producer nor experts can determine.

A new media empire?

New outlets that emerged after the uprising have generated even more controversy.

Media mogul Mohamed al-Amin made his fortune in Kuwait, where he traveled to work as an architect before starting a contracting company. Back in Egypt, Amin got involved in investments in partnership with Mansour Amer — who is also closely tied to figures from the Mubarak regime — until he entered the media arena in 2011.

Doubts were cast over the will of investors to pour money into a media operation at a time when most capital was flying out of Egypt.

But Amin has since been in the process of building a media empire, spearheaded by CBC satellite channel and Al-Watan newspaper. He has also acquired 85 percent of Al-Nahar channel in addition to drama and sports channels.

The aspiring media mogul has faced a host of accusations and rumors. Some have said he wants to bring back the Mubarak regime, while others say he receives secret foreign investments, or support from the Egyptian intelligence agencies.

Figures are not available, but the large volumes of money spent on all of Amin’s endeavors, from the high-quality paper used to print Al-Watan to the big names he has attracted to CBC, has helped fuel the rumors about Amin’s funding and agenda.

One journalist who did not want to be named says he became suspicious of the paper when Al-Watan offered him five times his current salary to leave his job at another leading paper to join Amin’s new project.

CBC’s main hosts are Lamees al-Hadidi and Khairy Ramadan, who both used to appear on state-owned channels. The programming has been virulently anti-Islamist. Hadidi often goes on anti-Islamist rants, and most of the guests have anti-Islamist inclinations.

Kassem says that, regardless of the rumors, Amin’s new prominence in the media is dangerous.

“Concentrating the media in the hands of individuals can make us long for the days of state media after a while,” says Kassem.

He says that while state media propagates one misleading but homogeneous discourse, having a handful of businessmen with conflicting interests using their media to propagate contradictory messages and manipulate public opinion can be even more harmful and could lead to the disintegration of the information system as a whole.

Kassem says the only explanation for Amin’s lack of regard for profits is that he is after political power, just like all the other businessmen involved in media projects.

What now?

With the election of Morsy as president and the ruling military council remaining hugely influential, Egypt’s private media now faces the unprecedented situation of having more than one political power center.

Most media outlets seem to be in a wait-and-see phase in which they are wary but not as staunchly critical of the Brotherhood as they were.

CBC has made space for Islamist guests since Morsy’s win. Such guests had been scarce in the run-up to the elections runoff. But the channel still raises suspicions and criticisms of the Brotherhood throughout its shows. Al-Watan newspaper simply listed Morsy’s promises and instructed the readers to keep a copy to make sure they held the new president accountable.

“The revolution hasn’t reached the media yet in a real way,” Kandil says. “It will take time before the media starts to be ruled by objectivity rather than personal interests.”

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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