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Egypt state media run to catch up with revolution

In the morning it was hosting guests denouncing protesters against President Hosni Mubarak as Iranian agents. By evening, it was airing a protester openly calling for the fall of the ruling system.
/ Source: Reuters

In the morning it was hosting guests denouncing protesters against President Hosni Mubarak as Iranian agents. By evening, it was airing a protester openly calling for the fall of the ruling system.

That shift by Egyptian state television in the course of a single day earlier this week was emblematic of a broader transformation over the course of the popular uprising.

As the revolt against the poverty, corruption and repression of Mubarak's 30 years in power has gained momentum, the official media's chiefs and staff have seen fit to change their tone.

That could help ensure their future if the democratic revolution goes all the way and ousts Mubarak and his circle, who have long used the media as part of their apparatus of control.

"State media may have changed tone but it is too late. They have been lying from the start and I don't understand why they think they are there to protect the president and not the country," said protester Ahmed Abdel Basat, 25, outside the heavily protected TV building in central Cairo on Friday.

Egypt's military realized the importance of media when it seized power in 1952. It was Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat who announced the "blessed movement", as the revolution was initially called, on the radio.

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. It cut the signal of Qatar-based Al Jazeera television early on during the disturbances.

LOSING BATTLE

Since the anti-Mubarak revolt began on January 25, state media have fought a losing battle with the popular mood.

The state news agency MENA first denounced the protests as the work of vandals.

After Mubarak's February 1 speech, it blamed the rallies in Cairo's Tahrir Square on people under foreign influence -- suggesting Lebanese group Hezbollah and Palestinian group Hamas had people on the scene -- as well as Egyptians with "agendas".

At the same time, the protesters of the first days of the revolt were lionized as noble youth who made legitimate demands for reform in the "January 25th Revolution", in contrast to those who were still in the streets demanding that Mubarak go.

At one point presenters on state TV shows tried to ridicule the protesters by saying they were receiving free meals from fast food chains with branches on or near Tahrir Square, though in fact most, if not all, of these were closed.

Amid the carnival atmosphere in Tahrir, protesters made fun of the attacks on them. Some walked around with large notebooks with the words "owner of an agenda" written on them, or munched burgers before the cameras of popular Arab satellite channels.

By the end of the week, Tahrir protesters were appearing on state radio and TV talk shows where presenters allowed them to express their demands for Mubarak to exit now, but pressed them to accept his concessions and help the country back to normal.

"We don't want to break up the state, our problem is who heads the presidency," a young protester, Bassem Fathy, said on one show. "We don't any more of this mentality of 'this is wrong, you're just kids'. That's just a way to keep having dictators."

NEWSPAPERS ADOPT REVOLUTION

This week the main state-owned dailies witnessed a major shift, when they began hailing a continuing revolution by the thousands of people who manned the Tahrir commune each day.

"We are faced with a credibility threat and there is nothing wrong with reviewing our calculations," said Ahmed Moussa, managing editor of al-Ahram newspaper. "We are really trying to avoid being seen by history as though we were singing one tune, while the people were singing another."

Several presenters on state TV walked out and members of the Journalists Syndicate rebelled against their Mubarak-backed chief Makram Mohammed Ahmed, who announced on Thursday he was on an "open vacation" from the post.

Soha al-Naqqash said she resigned after 20 years for what she called "a lack of ethical standards" in TV coverage.

"State media will struggle to regain its credibility. For that to happen, some of its leaders will have to be changed or else people won't believe reform is happening," she said.

One of the key demands already presented in preliminary talks between the government and opposition groups is "liberation of the media" from the government's grip.

The state media leviathan is still following Mubarak's agenda. After the 82-year-old leader's speech on Thursday night, MENA published comments in which Wael Ghonim, the Internet activist whose tears on private channel Dream TV this week reinvigorated protests, appeared to urge protesters to go home.

Ghonim later said he had been misrepresented.

Analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah said the official media's coverage of the uprising was a "scandal par excellence."

"What happened in Egypt was the rebirth of politics and the revival of the people as the source of legitimacy. State media must come to terms with that," he said.