CAIRO: As Egypt braces an election period, People’s Assembly ballot slated for October and a presidential race in 2011, media and political experts are leery of local media’s ability to cover the lengthy process.
Although media in Egypt has significantly progressed over the past few years, a higher sense of professionalism and training specific to elections are necessary for accurate coverage, members of two discussion panels hosted by the EU under the title "The Role and Responsibilities of the Media in Elections" agreed on Tuesday.
Egypt has a seen a boom in the number of independent and privately owned newspaper and TV talk shows which, on one side, widened the scope of coverage and allowed multiple political representation.
However, experts argue that such a splurge lacks professionalism, order and an editorial strategy.
“The government strategy is to flood and confuse,” professor of Political Science at Cairo University and panelist Ali El Sawy said, slamming the recent progress in media as “excessive.”
“The media has widened the public’s awareness but has failed to change what people believe in… It hasn’t shaped public opinion,” he added.
He explained that many talk show presenters lack academic background in media studies, “so they end up passing their own views rather than informed suggestions.”
“The problem is that the media has very little credibility. The state media has almost lost all credibility, especially amongst the middle class,” Hani Shukrallah, editor at Al-Shorouk daily, told Daily News Egypt after the seminar.
“And the problem with privately owned is… the level of professionalism, the level to adherence to professional ethics,” he added.
“There is very little emphasis on accuracy and truth, and much more emphasis on what item sells, and what their audience want to read” Shukrallah continued.
During the seminar, Shukrallah pointed to huge discrepancies between how state and independent media report the same issues.
“The truth is the fifth priority for media in Egypt,” he said.
Member of the Policy Secretariat Committee of the National Democratic Party Hossam Badrawy accused independent/privately owned media of falsifying information published by official sources. He said that such an environment breeds mistrust in all entities.
Meanwhile, political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Developments Amr El-Choubeki said, “Most Talk Shows in Egypt lack editorial strategies… they are chaotic and dangerous.”
El-Choubeki explained that Egyptian media needs to follow a new set of guidelines, undergo specific trainings and outline editorial strategies.
Questions on the extent to which funders dictate editorial content were also on the table.
“It’s okay to follow a certain agenda but each institution needs to be transparent about it so that citizens choose knowingly,” said Badrawi.
Some speakers criticized the news coverage by Al-Ahram and other state-run publications.
“If media is not entirely democratic, it is not necessarily autocratic. Egyptian media is in a transitional stage,” said Hala Moustafa, editor in chief of Democracy Journal, a quarterly publication of Al-Ahram.
“Media in Egypt is a populist media,” and if that persists, Moustafa argued, “it will help maintain the status quo.”
On political representation in the media, she said: “There is a gap in the size and power of political parties in Egypt,” pointing to Al-Wafd as the only opposition party with a roundly circulated daily publication.
“What about the opposition and reform movements that are not represented in political parties, how will the media represent their voices?”
Media and elections
Although the obstacles facing today’s media took center stage Tuesday, experts also discussed reasons for low participations during elections and the role the media should play to encourage citizens to cast their votes.
The media’s role is not restricted to vote-casting, according to Daily News Egypt Chief Editor and seminar panelist Rania Al Malky.
“The media should play a role before, during and after the elections,” she said, adding that there is a gap between what the media is supposed to do and what actually happens.
Al Malky explained that educating the public about the process of elections is “an absent element” that should be carried out by the media during the campaigning stages.
Similarly, Shukrallah said that the current state of the media is one among many factors why Egyptians choose not to cast their votes.
“Coverage is not just going to the polling stations and interviewing people. It’s giving background; it’s giving information about the context. It’s a whole process," he said.
Meanwhile, MP Georgit Qellini stressed that the media should adopt the language of the people and avoid complicated legal terms as a way to grab their interest.
“The most important member of the elections is the Egyptian citizen,” she said.
She added that journalists need extensive training be able to cover elections.
“Most media personnel are unaware of the roles of MPs and thus are unable to properly conduct interviews,” she said.
However, many remained skeptical of elections in Egypt in general, whether or not the media adopts the necessary tools to cover them.
“People don’t feel that their vote is worth anything and they are convinced that the government will have the results it wants whether they vote or not,” Shukrallah told Daily News Egypt.
He dismissed the coverage of the recent Shoura Council elections, which saw low participation rates.
“Interest [from the readers] in the PA elections will be much higher but I don’t think that that means coverage will be better,” he said.
“If there aren’t fair elections, then the role of the media will be spurious,” Secretary General of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights Hafez Abu Saeda said.