Egypt’s media has, over the last decade, been at the centre of a debate on a range of topics around press freedom, the efficiency of state-owned media, and the regulation of the country’s media scene.
Daily News Egypt sat down with Osama Heikal, Minister of State for Information, to find out more on the state’s plan to reformulate media policy. Heikal elaborated more on Egypt’s response to information warfare, and how the country can regain its soft media power.
Heikal previously served as Egypt’s Minister of Information in the first government following the January 2011 Revolution, and returned to take over the portfolio created in the last cabinet reshuffle.
What is the difference between the State Ministry of Information, the Supreme Media Council, and the State Information Service (SIS)?
First of all, there is no overlap between these entities. In 2011, I was the Minister of Information, when at the time the ministry was responsible for all public media, and I was also responsible for the State Information Service (SIS). All these entities are state-owned.
When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, they moved the SIS under the jurisdiction of the Presidency so they could control it.
Afterwards, the 2014 Constitution formed the independent Supreme Media Council as a regulator, giving it the authority to licence private sector media and oversee all media outlets, either private or public.
Article 212 of the Constitution established the National Press Authority, which is an independent authority managing all state-owned print and online media outlets. At the same time, Article 213 created the National Media Authority to manage the national broadcaster in Egypt.
On the other hand, after the abolition of the Ministry of Information, many people were calling for its return, whilst others said that it was unconstitutional. In fact, the Constitution doesn’t indicate anything relating to the Ministry of Information, or any other ministries. It includes only four ministries, namely the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Justice.
Of course that doesn’t mean that all other ministries are unconstitutional. Take the Ministry of Investment for example, it was created, then merged with another ministry, then it was abolished again.
This falls according to the views of the political leadership, and the need at the time for the ministry. The same goes for the Ministry of Emigration, which was abolished for 20 years, and reinstated when there was a need for it to combat illegal immigration. Thus, the political landscape determines if the country needs a certain ministry or not. Another example is the Ministry of Supply, it is a wartime ministry, yet it was not abolished after 1974, as it had an important role to play.
The Ministry of State for Information is no different to those ministries. The state needed a ministry to unify its political message, and set the country’s media policy. This became apparent after the huge development in media and social networking, which reinforced that every state decision should be coupled with a media strategy. The current ministry has a very different role compared to the previous ones, as now it is a ministry of state which sets the policies and strategies and doesn’t own the media outlets. The difference is also that now you have a smaller administrative apparatus.
Take the news regarding the recent [River Nile] floods, for example. During a recent cabinet meeting, we issued a press release, after communicating with the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, so that people could access accurate information from the government. This is important, especially as the flooding season coincided with the torrential rains season. People needed a unified message from the state with all the required information, so they did not panic. That way the information became available to everyone, and it then falls to the journalists’ judgment if they want to publish it or not.
What are the most serious challenges facing Egypt’s media industry, and how is the ministry going to deal with it?
We have several main issues, the first of which is that for years, we have been focusing only on official state media and the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), formerly the Arab Radio and Television Union, and which is the oldest state-run broadcasting organisation in the Arab World and Africa. As it was the only broadcaster, it was not used to having competition. In the 1990s, private TV networks managed to gain influence and pull the rug out from beneath it.
With the emergence of satellite channels in the 90s, private channels began sprouting, gaining popularity, and making a big difference. Despite its huge potential, Egyptian television was faced with the tremendous development in the means of technology available.
In 2011, a kind of halt occurred in all walks of life in Egypt, so the Egyptian citizen began to turn to various foreign media outlets to obtain information. The form of journalism which was previously commonplace began to move to a new type that sometimes did not require the intervention of the journalist.
Over the past 10 years in Egypt, no thought has been given to the future of the profession, and the reliance on traditional methods has led to the news consumer’s alienation due to the similarity of content in different newspapers in Egypt.
What is your assessment of Egypt’s current media freedom? How do you respond to accusations by human rights organisations that the state is harassing journalists?
Al-Jazeera’s lie was evident during the demonstrations that it claimed took place in September last year, after it broadcast fabricated videos. Each channel has a goal and agenda, and the funder is the one who sets these goals. It is imperative that we are aware of the sources of funding for the private channels.
Reporters Without Borders produces an annual report on press freedoms, and Egypt was ranked 163 [out of 180 in the 2019 ranking], so we began communicating with the organisation to find out the criteria chosen by them to place Egypt in this rank, We found that they have sources in Egypt with an anti-Egyptian orientation.
As part of our investigation into this, we found that some elements were renting an apartment and creating media content without a licence, which is not normal. Today, we have less than 2,000 foreign directors accredited by the SIS’s press centre, none of whom have been arrested.
Why does the Egyptian state delay in communicating with the foreign press regarding ongoing events, or on commenting on inquiries?
In this regard, we can say that The Guardian correspondent Ruth Michaelson had a certain position on the Egyptian state relating to her reporting of how we handle the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, for example. The newspaper’s false coverage, at the beginning of the crisis, of the number of people infected with the coronavirus inside Egypt was unprofessional.
At that time, the correspondent said that Egypt is publishing false numbers about the number of infections in Egypt. Her reporting relied only on a study published by a researcher in Canada as a source about the infected numbers inside Egypt, and she also said that the number of victims had reached 19,000 cases. However, at that time the number of coronavirus cases worldwide had not reached that level.
As Minister of Information, I wrote to The Guardian to provide the Egyptian state with the names of the victims, as they said they had credibility, and whoever publishes wrong information should apologise. However, The Guardian correspondent did not reply or apologise, despite our sending a warning, and as a result we ended the newspaper’s presence in Egypt because it harms national security.
The same issue happened with The Washington Post, which failed to communicate with officials for one of the reports. So we contacted the authorised party and emphasised the need for communication.
Concerning what is happening in Sinai, there is sensitivity with regards to dealing with press demands for interaction, because during the battles in the region, the main source of information is the Armed Forces. It is also the Armed Forces which first counts the injured and the dead, and then reports the details to the media about what happened and the figures.
We had questions about Al-Jazeera’s filming during military battles, and there were media outlets publishing reports about the numbers in an increasing fashion. And it was a real war that lasted from six in the morning until five in the afternoon.
Relating to the events of 2015 in Sheikh Zuweid, several media outlets published false reports about the numbers. These false reports were also publicly released after the release of the Armed Forces’ statement after counting the injured and dead. What happened throughout the day was a psychological war via the reports against the psyche of the Egyptian people.
The Armed Forces always issues reliable and reliable statements that do not require interpretation.
In other matters, the journalist must rely on other sources, with no one preventing them from seeking information. There are only restrictions on matters related to national security, which is something that happens in the US and the UK as well.
Why is controversy arising in matters related to national security? Why does a journalist salivate about matters of national security? The Egyptian state may not interact with journalists on such topics such as Libya and Ethiopia, because the statements issued by the Egyptian state must serve the country’s interests related to national security. If a normal local incident occurred, Egypt’s Ministry of Interior releases information on the matter, and there is no objection to the journalist being present to obtain information about it from the scene of the incident.
I cannot guarantee the security of a journalist if they move freely within the areas where clashes are ongoing inside Sinai. If a journalist comes in who wants to work according to journalistic standards by communicating with all parties to the conflict, I do not guarantee their security, as they may be kidnapped or endanger their life because the war there is not regular.
Will there be regular press conferences for foreign journalists?
We are planning to do this, but first we need to organise how they can broadcast and cover these events, as they have not been allowed to broadcast from the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. The other option was to broadcast through Egypt’s Media Production City, as it is a private sector entity. The problem here is that it is located in Sixth of October City, which is geographically far from the country’s decision making areas where such press conferences take place.
As a result, we established a media centre in Nile Street in Giza Governorate, where several foreign TV channels now present, and foreign journalists can find a place to work. We aim to provide them with all the necessary services to make their jobs easier.
We have recently launched an initiative called Eco Egypt, where we invited plenty of foreign media outlets. As we are keen to include them in state events, it is important to have relations with international media and cooperate with them.
If any journalist working in Egypt is not able to get to the information they need, they are more than welcome to get in touch with the Ministry of State for Information, and we will try to facilitate everything for them.
What is important for us is to provide them with the accurate information they need, as if we did not do that already!
How can the state keep citizens informed to counter the information warfare being launched from different regional players, such as Al Jazeera?
Well, Al Jazeera has already lost its influence, as people realised its ill intentions. Look at their recent coverage of the so-called “20th of September” protests, where they broadcast old footage and previous clashes, claiming that they are happening now. Nobody believed them this time. Once it was discovered that the media content provided by Al-Jazeera was not sincere, people started to alienate it. Al-Jazeera Mubasher closed in 2011, because it did not have a legitimate licence, which is an infringement of Egyptian sovereignty.
When you look at any media outlet, it is essential to know its source of funding, since funding decides the outlet’s agenda. Look at some London based channels such as Al-Araby, which is managed by Azmi Beshara and funded by Qatar.
In recent years, we defined the channels that work against the Egyptian state. Every TV channel in the world has an agenda, and people should be aware of what this agenda is. Another important aspect is that people should react to everything logically and scientifically, not emotionally.
That way, viewers can separate the wheat from the chaff. The most important conclusion of the recent coverage of the events is that some media outlets tried to sow distrust between the citizens and the state. This time around, people did not fall for their traps, as they already understood that they are spreading fake news. This also showed the importance of having strong media outlets that can provide a speedy release of facts and information in a professional manner.
The Ministry of Information has established an electronic platform to transmit state news to the press, as a way of rapidly relaying government decisions and preventing rumours.
I see that competitiveness and the level of influence are among the most important elements that lead to the success of the media system, with image now most likely to strike the reader’s attention. Despite the citizens now having a large number of media platforms of different nationalities from which to choose, they always tend towards those which attract them through visual content. There are also other media inputs, such as media directed at youth, which most people have not had time to get to grips with. The goal is to achieve a certain level of influence among the presented media so that it has an impact on the region, and Egypt has lost its media influence within the region.
Can you tell us further details of the media reform plan presented to the President?
Egypt has the potential to be the most powerful source of media in the region. The process of reforming the world is matched by a process of resistance, and as we currently have resistance, we are now quietly undertaking the reform process. Upon the agreement of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, we are looking to ensure that Egypt’s media is diversified and credible.
As part of this, a reform plan was presented to President Al-Sisi based on diversity and credibility, although he has not yet approved the final plan. In addition to my vision of the country’s national press organisations distributing copies of publications for free, it is also important to have only one influential newspaper, which is better than having 50 ineffective ones. As a result of this, we plan to support influential news outlets, whether private or public.
Despite the fact that the media is equal to influence, there are state-owned institutions that have no influence. The editors-in-chief of these institutions have responsibilities for their publication’s development, so the role of the state is important in choosing those in charge of national institutions.
We noticed the complete dependence of journalists on official statements, which has resulted in similarities in the headlines and content of many national and private newspapers. Do you think this is fruitful?
During the crisis caused by the floods last March, the state performed well in educating citizens about the dangers of being outside during that time, and had it not been for the awareness provided by the state, the losses would be in the thousands. The timing of the government’s public announcement of the state’s intent to grant people a day off was important. This was a so-called media decision regarding what was published. The Ministry of Information took the initiative to request the approval for people to stay at home, and with the grace of God, we avoided huge losses in the human element.
During the coronavirus crisis, the state was keen for the Egyptian citizen to be a partner in the decision-making process. Were it not for this policy, the citizen would turn to outside sources to obtain information about the situation relating to the pandemic.
Does the ministry also influence the Egyptian identity through different media forms, such as the cinema industry and drama?
We have launched an initiative to restore the Egyptian identity. To start this process, we gathered all the concerned ministries, and as a first step, all aspects of this identity will be monitored alongside all its pros and cons.
The Ministry of State for Information, along with the Ministries of Youth and Sports, Religious Endowments, Culture, Education, and Higher Education, will study the issue, with the ministerial-level meetings to be translated into an action plan. As part of this plan, we will launch a conference in the upcoming months, to reveal our findings on how the Egyptian identity and character has evolved over the last few decades.
We are still in the process of finalising the plan, but cinema and drama play an important role in it. We will also collaborate with Egypt’s youth through state initiatives, such as using photography or social media. These initiatives aim to familiarise them with the state’s policies, so they can reciprocate this information in their own way, as they are best suited to communicate with youth.
I was just discussing this issue with the president of the National Council for Women (NCW) Maya Morsi, who highlighted how drama often negatively portrays the Egyptian woman and objectifies her. In my opinion, our biggest flaw is that we are very emotional, and it is essential to be able to react to everything logically and scientifically, not emotionally. This is particularly important when dealing with information warfare.