CAIRO: Along with a host of respected editors, rights advocates and political analysts and politicians, I was invited by the European Union Commission in Cairo to participate in a seminar to discuss the role and responsibilities of the media in covering elections.
Participants spoke of the boom in independent and privately-owned media outlets — whether in broadcast or in print — but pointed to the negative aspect of this splurge, namely the lack of professionalism, and an editorial strategy that has had the counter effect of confusing rather than informing the public.
Editor of Al-Ahram’s “Democracy Review” Dr. Hala Moustafa even went so far as saying that there is no “independent” media in Egypt per se, only privately-owned media. This new model, she explained, does not necessarily demonstrate a fundamental departure from the traditional state-run media, which the so-called private media claims to have uprooted, especially when it comes to delivering and embracing a truly liberal attitude to hot-button issues such as Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, women’s empowerment and political participation.
In my contribution, I said that under hybrid, authoritarian regimes like Egypt, where mass media tools are still in their infancy and the media landscape is in a transition between being completely co-opted by the state and being partially free, any discussion of the media’s role must specify two things.
First, which media are we referring to? Is it the mass media in the form of national newspapers, TV and public radio? In this case in Egypt the reality as we experienced it in past pseudo-elections is that there is a clear gap between the media’s duty to offer equal time to candidates to present their platforms and promote their campaigns, and the biased reality on even the simplest level of campaign promotions on TV, in outdoor campaigns and display ads in the printed press.
Here I refer to paid campaigning where there is a lack of transparency as to whether these campaigns abide by the LE 10 million cap on campaign budgets as stipulated by the law, and which is subject to the scrutiny of the Central Audit Agency.
The second area we must specify in any discussion of the role of the media in elections is the “when” element. Considering that we are no where near where we need to be when it comes to the level of press freedom we enjoy, despite the huge strides in raising the threshold, the crucial and most important role for Egyptian media in this case is as a monitor, observer and reporter during the polling process.
With little influence on the campaign stage (which by law is only allowed for three weeks before the polling), the media must focus on monitoring the process itself, reporting irregularities, violations, instances of physical violence and mass vote-buying to name a few.
The open exposure of bad practices is an important part of the awareness raising process and will show citizens that there are legal means to contest election results and present them with these channels.
In a follow-up gathering of the seminar panelists earlier this week hosted by the Ambassador of the EU Commission, Dr. Osama El Ghazali Harb drew attention to a point that we all seemed to take for granted: Before asking how the media should cover elections, we should make sure that we have elections in the first place, Harb said.
If, as some of the panelists rightly said, Egyptians lack confidence in the media, then when it comes to elections, that confidence rift is compounded by the fact that the notion of free and fair elections in itself is an oxymoron — it’s as absurd as suggesting that Cairo has no traffic problem.
What I would like to add to that is, just as much as we need to ensure that Egypt will eventually (and certainly through some level of divine intervention) hold free and fair elections, we also need to make sure that we have voters to participate in them.
Member of the ruling National Democratic Party and panelist at the seminar Dr. Hossam Badrawy gave a stunning statistic that voter turn-out in the recent Shoura Council elections did not exceed 4 percent. A quick search on the website of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), showed that in the 2005 Parliamentary elections, the voter turnout was 28.13 percent, representing a little under 9 million voters out of a registered 31 million and a population of about 78 million.
The numbers are significantly less than was the case 10 years earlier in the 1995 elections, when voter turnout was 47.99 percent, of almost 20 million registered voters and a population of 60 million.
Note that these numbers are probably all based on ultra-liberal government statistics that most likely represent double the real numbers in the best case scenario.
Clearly the media’s role in this abysmal state of political apathy is to go back to basics. The media must first and foremost mobilize the public to the importance and relevance of voting to their personal lives.
Only then will Egypt have all the necessary building blocks in place to host a truly democratic experience.
But don’t hold your breath; it won’t happen in the next two years.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.