Al-Masry Al-Youm sat with Minister of Information Osama Heikal in an interview conducted in conjunction with New Yorker magazine. The interview took place before the recent events in Tahrir Square and before the resignation of Prime Minister’s Essam Sharaf’s cabinet, which leaves Heikal’s fate in the ministry unknown.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: What is the general policy of state television?
Osama Heikal: There was a real revolution in January and we seek to establish its goals. Secondly, we are against any attempts to sow strife between the armed forces and the people or between any other sections of society. We must think of the future, most of the Egyptian media outlets speak of the past. Fourth is to stop appealing to emotions and think of stimulating minds of people, and lastly, to stand at an equal distance from all political forces in Egypt.
There is a sense of a parallel narrative in Egypt, on one side criticism of the military and repeated strikes, and the other is one calling for calm. There is a feeling that state media is more aligned with the military narrative.
We have a national direction. As a member of the government I feel that sector strikes leads to deterioration of the economy. Also, continued protests of political powers in Egypt, some of which were frozen in the past few years, now are displaying their power in a big way, and so we have a position that may sometimes align with SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] but there is also criticism of it. This is brought up from time to time because there are certain sides that just want to attack official media.
Part of our message is not to incite against one side or another. Some professional mistakes happen because of the transition from a system that has been ongoing for forty years and won't change overnight.
Al-Masry: Obviously I’m going to ask you about the coverage of events at Maspero on 9 October but there are other cases where people complain that other things aren’t picked up by state media, such as military trials of civilians.
Heikal: On 9 October they accused us of incitement. Does incitement precede the event or does the event happen and then the incitement occurs? We were covering with great balance and no other television station was covering because it was right downstairs. The real problem is that some presenters were overwhelmed by the situation and started to defend [the military]. Some people said we didn’t mention the number of Coptic deaths but the question is who gave this number before us?
In the past [state media] might not even have covered the event but we covered it live, and it is possible in live coverage for mistakes to occur. I was clear when I said there were mistakes that were made. We got an impartial external committee from Cairo University's Faculty of Mass Communication who said the same thing; that there was no incitement but professional mistakes were made. There are a number of mistakes we need to learn from. We did bring it to the presenters’ attention and the presenter in question [Rasha Magdy] took a month off on her own volition and that will probably extend. Mistakes were also made in the news bar, it was late and described the protesters as Copts even though we didn’t know whom the protesters were and who was fighting. The second mistake was that there was a soldier downstairs whose colleague had died and in a state of emotion he insulted the Copts. There was an apology for this right away but that is a mistake and it doesn’t excuse that mistake. After 40 years of covering things in a certain way the transition will always be difficult.
Al-Masry: What can state media do now after Maspero?
Heikal: The campaign against us is unjustified. Professional mistakes can happen but there are lots of mistakes in private media channels that no one talks about. Did someone say anything about Al Jazeera Mubasher Masr inciting on the day of the Israeli embassy 9 September for example? It was taken very personally. When I sat with Pope Shenouda he understood the matter. The incitement did not happen, if it did I would have resigned, and nor would the Pope have received me. There are these attempts to create divisions between Egyptians, even with the military. Who are the military? Are they not our brothers and relatives? Don’t they have Christians amongst them? Bullets don’t differentiate between Muslims and Christians.
There was targeting, and I don’t think it’s far from what we all feel, that there is a conspiracy. Its not my business who was fighting who, in this chaos you can’t tell if the man carrying the gun is a Muslim or a Christian. State media is beginning to stand on its feet and that is worrying some political powers, which are trying to take it down.
Al-Masry: As you said, state media was pro-regime for forty years. Isn’t the military the stand-in for regime now?
Heikal: It’s not a military regime. If it was, you couldn’t have been able to move around like you do, and no one would have been able to insult me or insult the SCAF on television. On many occasions in front of me Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi refused to issue orders to use violence in many places. I think he wants things to move naturally and he is serious in transferring power to a civilian authority. I have talked to him many times about this.
Al-Masry: Should there be a Ministry of Information in a democracy?
Heikal: No. I myself was opposed to the Ministry of Information in the past and when it was abolished I objected to its sudden abolishment. It will be abolished sooner or later, but things must be put in place before doing that. When you have a system in place for all the state media outlets [ there are 12 in Egypt], then you abolish it.