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Egypt state media change tune after Mubarak's fall

The revolution on the streets of Egypt has been matched by a revolution in media that was one of the pillars of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule.
/ Source: Reuters

The revolution on the streets of Egypt has been matched by a revolution in media that was one of the pillars of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule.

Immediately upon his fall from power last Friday, Egypt's main state-owned dailies turned against Mubarak, proclaimed the victory of the revolution and launched into apologetics for their coverage of an uprising that started on January 25.

"The sun of freedom shines," ran the headline on the front page of al-Gomhuria, which was one of the most servile state-run papers under Mubarak.

"The people have brought down the regime," the main state-owned daily al-Ahram declared. A columnist even described Mubarak as "the last Pharaoh."

The shift on state television was no less seismic. Nationalistic songs in the tradition of the 1960s were replaced by montages of brave youth marching for freedom set against a rock riff by Egyptian pop star Mohammed Mounir.

Some faces of the news associated with the dour Mubarak years have been replaced with presenters unscathed by the era of mass media mobilization.

"They have transformed their coverage," said Shahira Amin, a veteran of state news who quit two weeks ago over coverage that portrayed the protesters as vandals backed by foreigners who were in any case small in number.

"I hope the change of tone won't be just cosmetic. My concern, since I worked there for so long, is that corruption is so rampant in state media institutions, so they really need to get their house in order."

The high command has used state TV to issue five televised communiques to explain plans for handing power back to civilians through constitutional amendments and elections -- and warning people to quit striking and get back to work for Egypt's sake.

The military, which realized the importance of media when it seized power in 1952, also met with senior journalists on Tuesday as part of efforts in recent days to persuade the media to present developments in a positive light.

One of the demands of protesters and opposition groups was "liberating the media," and they have followed through.

Newspapers run front-page items about the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group long demonized by Mubarak, and television gives members air time to hear their opinion.

"The ceiling for press freedom is now much higher and it isn't just for the press," said Ahmed Moussa, managing editor of al-Ahram. "Today, 80 million Egyptians have become political analysts and everyone is saying whatever they want.

"In this kind of environment, we can say the ceiling will never be lowered again. We are all free now."


Egyptian state media, which employ 46,000 people in their Cairo headquarters alone, have an extremely long reach. They include more than a dozen terrestrial and satellite channels, at least as many radio stations and some two dozen state newspapers and magazines in the country of 80 million.

Egypt owns one major satellite company, Nilesat, and has a stake in another, Arabsat. The Mubarak-led government cut the signal of Qatar-based Al Jazeera television early on during the disturbances.

In the new Egypt, Al Jazeera is back up and running, though security police harassed its team as it filmed on the streets of Alexandria on Tuesday.

Under Mubarak numerous state security agencies extended their influence into every aspect of life, including the media.

"State security censorship is no longer the issue it was a few weeks ago. No state security officer will dare to threaten the press," said Hisham Kassem, a rights activist and publisher.

"Everyone in the Interior Ministry is running around and worrying about their own positions. We should expect much more open coverage in independent media and higher readership as a result. That is already evident now."

Journalists say the network of television, radio and press managers who facilitated state snooping on them remains in place but the pressure to change is coming from the rank and file with the institutions.

Karam Yehia, an al-Ahram journalist, said there was pressure on newspaper chiefs, who mainly belonged to Mubarak's disgraced National Democratic Party, to go.

The Mubarak-backed head of the Journalists Syndicate has been effectively ousted in a putsch by members.

"These people have dead consciences -- they have conspired against the people for dozens of years," Yehia said. "They need to go. It's not a matter of faces alone, it's about editorial policies and we have to take a stand now."