Egypt caught between two narratives

Egyptian protesters firebombed one of the offices of satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. The protesters attacked Qatari-based Al-Jazeera Live studio overlooking Tahrir square with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs leaving it gutted by fire hours later. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

Egyptian protesters firebombed one of the offices of satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. The protesters attacked Qatari-based Al-Jazeera Live studio overlooking Tahrir square with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs leaving it gutted by fire hours later. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

As four Al Jazeera staffers sit behind bars in Egypt, an international campaign to free them is underway. From Berlin to Kabul, hundreds of journalists have protested worldwide calling for their freedom. In Cairo, however, there wasn’t much sympathy for the arrested journalists.

On the contrary, many Egyptians cheered on the authorities and their crackdown against the Qatari-owned network.

“A bullet might kill a man, but a lying camera kills a nation,” read a poster plastered on a wall near Al Jazeera’s office in Cairo. A photo of a hand dripping blood above the familiar Al Jazeera logo accompanied the chilling quote.

The poster echoed sentiments of many Egyptians. Al Jazeera journalists, they believed, had blood on their hands for broadcasting unreliable reports that resulted in violence against the state.

“Al Jazeera is inciting violence,” said Anas Shabana, a private business owner. He accused the network of “spreading lies” since 2011, when the Egyptian uprising first erupted. Shabana recalled watching Al Jazeera three years ago as it reported violence in an area in the suburbs of Giza. Panicked, he immediately got in touch with friends who lived there – only to hear them say that their neighborhood was quiet.

Abroad, the Al Jazeera detentions are seen as a test of press freedom, but in Egypt, the matter is known as the “Marriott terrorism cell” case. Egyptian media has accused the Al Jazeera journalists of not only fabricating news, but also running a terrorist cell out of a luxurious Cairo hotel.

Three Al Jazeera English staffers were arrested late December from a hotel room that served as their makeshift office in Cairo. They were detained initially on the basis that they did not abide by Egyptian media laws – they did not have the required permits to broadcast. Later, they were charged with harming the national interest and broadcasting false news to support a terrorist group – the Muslim Brotherhood.

The jailed journalists – Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, Australian reporter Peter Greste, and Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy – have denied all charges. A fourth journalist from the network’s Arabic channel, Abdallah El Shamy, has been held since August with no charge.

The journalists’ arrests were part of a broader crackdown on the Brotherhood. After masses took to the streets on June 30 calling for president Mohamed Morsy, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, to resign, the military stepped in and ousted him. Afterwards, the interim government officially declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

The fact that the arrested journalists work for Qatari-owned Al Jazeera was all but enough evidence to incriminate them.  The Qatari government has been the Brotherhood’s biggest ally in the region. Today, it is home to many of the organization’s self-exiled members and the recipient of Egyptian disdain.

“The government managed to overall portray Al Jazeera and Qatar as enemies of Egypt,” explained Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mansour stressed that, regardless of any perceived bias, the arrest of journalists cannot be justified.

Even though the Qatari government has pursued a foreign policy that supports the Brotherhood, Al Jazeera’s newsroom and journalists are adamant that this does not affect their coverage.

“I’ve been working here for almost 8 years,” said Jamal Al Shayyal, a senior news producer at Al Jazeera English. “There has never been a time where I received any directive from anyone in management in terms of trying to push a certain editorial or political line.”

However, Haggag Salama, an Egyptian correspondent of the network, resigned in July along with 21 staff members of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the network’s Egypt-focused channel, over what they called “biased coverage.” Announcing his resignation in a phone interview on another Egyptian channel, Salama also accused the network of “airing lies and misleading viewers.”

But Shayyal reckons these staffers may have been seeking self-promotion.  “Several of these people who quit had actually submitted their resignation before these events took place,” he said.

Nonetheless, the resignations were detrimental to Al Jazeera’s already-collapsing credibility in Egypt.  While Al Jazeera English and its Arabic counterpart are editorially separate, the average Egyptian does not differentiate between the different channels of the network.

“To me, Al Jazeera is nothing more than a Muslim Brotherhood propaganda tool,” said Hany Girgus, an Egyptian living in Canada who supported the ouster of Morsy.  “Most Western reporters are doing a negative job in Egypt,” he said. “They ignore that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians support the current political roadmap in Egypt.”

The media mistrust in Egypt has become a bigger threat to journalists than a government clampdown. Over the past few months, there has been growing anger towards international news organizations, and a widespread belief that foreign journalists are biased in their coverage. Today, these journalists are more likely to face attacks by angry Egyptian citizens rather than state authorities.

Following the military’s intervention in July, Egyptian media immediately hailed the armed forces and congratulated the Egyptian people on the success of their “second revolution” – overthrowing two presidents in less than three years. For once, Egypt’s state media and privately-owned cable networks were aligned in their support for the country’s current leaders.

But the majority of international news outlets, including Al Jazeera, did not follow suit. Instead, what Egyptian media celebrated as a “revolution,” international media described as a “military coup.” The analysis was negative; the military had overthrown Egypt’s first “democratically elected president,” international media stressed.

“A lot of what people here call bias is just good reporting,” said Steve Negus, a Cairo-based journalist, in an email. “People in Cairo have grown to hate the Brotherhood, and are willing to believe anything the government says about it. Journalists are skeptical of key government claims — ie, that the [Muslim Brotherhood] as an organization has carried out terrorist acts — as they should be.”

In support for Egypt’s military, most Egyptian media outlets excluded those who still support the deposed president from their coverage – unless it was to shed them in negative light and refer to them as terrorists. By doing so, they believe they are promoting national unity.

“They think that by broadcasting pictures of anti-coup protests, or strikes, or police brutality, that is inciting violence,” said Al Jazeera’s Shayyal. “When in fact that is just called journalism in any other country in the world.“

Since July, Egypt has found itself caught between two contrasting narratives. Local media continued to applaud the military’s “war on terrorism,” while international media criticized the military’s “repressive actions.”

The international portrayal frustrates many Egyptians. “When you read reports that are completely oblivious to the violence by Islamists, and just framing the violence of the authorities, which is usually a reaction, you think, what do these people want from Egypt?” said Ahmed Wagih, an Egyptian engineer. “Do they want the Syrian scenario?”

Journalist Negus said the international media criticism of the military government fits the ethic “that you tell ‘truth to power,’ and that you don’t report a government’s PR.” But sometimes reporters overcompensate, he said. “People frequently report that the government is handling things disastrously, but rarely report that authorities seem to be doing the best they can do, given the circumstances.”