Al-Ahram newspaper became the news on Sept. 14, that notorious Tuesday when the illfated second round of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to kick off in Sharm El-Sheikh.
It’s no news that Al-Ahram is and probably always will be the unashamed mouthpiece of the ruling regime, posturing as a so-called “national” newspaper. But then there are limits to how far you can go with spreading propaganda.
Allow me to explain.
Earlier this month, President Hosni Mubarak was graciously invited to attend the launch of direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in Washington. Jordan’s King Abdullah was also invited again as a sort of guest of honor, seeing as the two countries are strong US allies who will spare no effort to help the US administration improve it’s fast-deteriorating negative image in the region.
A now iconic picture of the event taken by The Associated Press, showed US President Barack Obama leading the carefully-choreographed red carpet walk inside the White House to the East Room, flanked two steps behind by the head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who were, in turn followed by President Mubarak on the left and King Abdullah on the right.
Fast forward about 10 days and an eerily similar image appears on page 14 of the state’s flagship publication with a huge headline “The Road to Sharm El-Sheikh”, but this time President Mubarak has been mysteriously moved to the front of the pack — ahead of Obama — in a desperate effort to give the impression that our great leader is at the forefront of the peace talks in the city of peace.
The unscrupulous photoshop job first came to this newspaper’s attention through a blog post by activist Wael Khalil. In our Sept. 15 issue, we ran both pictures and asked readers to spot the difference. Within a day, news of the doctored image had made international headlines along with other stories — not least of which the ironic instant failure of the illusive peace talks — on The Guardian, the Independent, Sky News, the BBC, the Huffington Post, to name a few.
“Hosni Mubarak left red faced over doctored red carpet photo” ran The Guardian headline.
An international scandal by any measure, the incident served to draw attention to the whole world that the age of propaganda is still alive and kicking in the cradle of civilization where democracy has reigned supreme for three decades and where the press enjoys the unparalleled freedom to even make up news and tamper with history.
It’s hard to imagine how far up the hierarchy in Al-Ahram went the decision to tamper with this photo. The best case scenario would be that the photographer / graphic designer who unashamedly even signed his name under the doctored image, did it on his own accord spurred on by a simple-minded (or brainwashed) editor whose (innocent) intention was to pay a compliment to the president.
Now that the whole affair has backfired so badly, stripping Al-Ahram of whatever shred of credibility it may have still enjoyed, what penalty will those responsible for this colossal gaffe face?
Apart from the embarrassment this has caused both the president and the regime, isn’t this public display of unethical behavior by the state-run press tantamount to tarnishing Egypt’s image? Or is this charge reserved to journalists in the independent and opposition press who dare to expose administrative corruption or question the integrity of elections?
Of the endless list of superlatives one can use to describe Ahramgate, “colossal stupidity” would probably be the most accurate. In the internet age, where no stone is left unturned, where activist citizen journalists monitor despotic regimes’ every move, it’s both naïve and ignorant to think that any newspaper can get away with such a blatant act of both copyright violation and the deliberate spread of misinformation.
The regime learnt a very old lesson the hard way: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
Someone’s head must roll for this. And it better happen soon.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.