CAIRO: When the media becomes the news, you know that trouble is brewing.
It all began a few weeks ago with Al-Ahram’s doctored photograph showing President Hosni Mubarak leading a pack of heads of state, including US President Barack Obama, prior to the second round of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
Despite the colossal gaffe that turned Egypt into the laughingstock of the Middle East — indeed the world — editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram daily Osama Saraya had the audacity to go on TV and defend the unfortunate decision, dropping words whose meaning he clearly misunderstands, like “infographics”.
Al-Ahram’s infographics team, he claimed, worked within acceptable journalistic parameters to recreate the symbolic image that aimed to highlight Egypt’s vital role in the peace negotiations. While no one can deny Egypt’s vital role, most people were horrified at the new low reached by the Arab world’s once pioneering paper and its editor’s unapologetic justification which not only exposed the unwritten code by which state-run titles operate, but showed that the editor of this respected media institution doesn’t even know the meaning of “infographics”.
“Infographics” — short for information graphics — are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge using graphics to represent complex information simply and clearly. The keyword here is “graphics” — not as Saraya tried to sell it, “doctored images used symbolically”.
Then earlier this week, two other media related issues caught the public eye.
First, the Higher Judicial Council published a statement — whether or not it is legally binding is not yet clear — recommending a complete prohibition of any kind of media coverage whether print or broadcast, of court cases. The statement came on the heels of the unexpected verdict in the Suzanne Tamim murder case, where construction guru Hisham Talaat Moustafa was given a 15-year sentence for inciting the murder of the Lebanese singer and Mohsen Al-Sukkari, was slapped a life sentence for carrying out the murder. Both had been sentenced to death in a former ruling.
While one may agree on principal that some media outlets had starkly violated the conventions of covering court cases, setting up their own courts to try the judges and coming up with conspiracy theories about the “real” reasons behind a ruling, this does not mean that the media at large should be banned from covering court cases of public interest. The priority is that it is in the public interest for the people to see justice being served. A few bad apples should not be used as a pretext to gag the media.
Then just a few days later, we woke up to the shocking news that outspoken editor of Al-Dostor independent newspaper Ibrahim Eissa was fired by the newspaper’s new owner, El-Sayed Al-Badawy, who also happens to be the President of Al-Wafd party.
It’s still unclear exactly why Eissa was fired, but the timing seems impeccable. Even though I personally disagree with Al-Dostor’s editorial line of politicizing and manipulating news and events to serve it’s dedicated mission of attacking the government without abiding by the basic journalistic standards of proper sourcing and fact-checking and through the intentional conflation of views and news, sacking Eissa is not the way to settle political accounts.
Rumor has it that Eissa was sacrificed in a deal between Al-Wafd and the ruling National Democratic Party in the run-up to the legislative elections slated for November.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but this is no coincidence. The most vocal critic of the regime is suddenly fired less than a month before elections which most observers expect will be rigged; and at the same time a higher judicial body wants to ban coverage of court cases. All this takes place after “Ahram-gate” — the stark reminder of how the state-owned press has no scruples over tampering with facts, no matter how easy it has become to expose it.
When you connect the dots, one picture is bound to emerge: The coming elections will see cutthroat competition and honest, responsible media is our only line of defense against foul-play.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.