A Sleeping Watchdog

Thu, Sep. 12, 2013
The media is not to blame for terrorist acts against Copts. But it is to be questioned on what it has done, or will do, to amend the situation. Afight between two men from Upper Egypt, where tempers are notoriously quick to flare, could result from a dispute over honor, politics, land or even a game of chess. In any case, the media wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such stories, unless it’s a rather slow news day. However, if the two men happen to be a Muslim and a Copt, stop the press: They’re making it to the front page.
By Nadine El Sayed
Afight between two men from Upper Egypt, where tempers are notoriously quick to flare, could result from a dispute over honor, politics, land or even a game of chess. In any case, the media wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such stories, unless it’s a rather slow news day. However, if the two men happen to be a Muslim and a Copt, stop the press: They’re making it to the front page.Given the influence that the media — be it print, radio, TV or online — has over public opinion on issues of consequence such as the Al Qeddessine (Saints) Church attack, it’s hard to ignore the watchdog’s role, especially in impressionable societies where illiteracy is widespread and broadcast media becomes the only source of information (or misinformation) for many. So in turn, the love-hate relationship the media seems to have with issues relating to the nation’s Coptic Christian minority is raising questions about the role the media has in addressing their concerns. From irresponsible, sensationalist coverage to increase readership and religious programs airing extremists preaching hate to just plain denial of Coptic grievances, the media has played diverse roles on this subject. Analysts and practitioners have much to say about how the local media handles news of Copts and religious tensions, and the image is not necessarily pretty. The Latest Sensation Balanced and fair reporting isn’t for everyone, apparently. To satiate their audience’s appetite for drama and action, a number of media outlets have been intentionally discarding accuracy — a pillar of journalism — to hype up a story. Ibtissam Habib, a member of Parliament with the governing National Democratic Party, feels that while the overall coverage of the attacks on churches in recent years has been appropriate, there are some channels that handled the incidents in a manner that added fuel to the flames. “This is unacceptable because under those circumstances, we should look for solutions, not incite people,” she says. At the core of media ethics lies balanced, objective and responsible reporting based on solid facts that tell the story as it is – not as to how it would generate an audience. Ehab El Zelaky, managing editor of the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm, believes the media today lacks these values. “There are several major professional violations in handling disputes that have a sectarian nature,” asserts El Zelaky. A Muslim beating up his Coptic colleague in the name of religion is far more interesting than a dispute over a promotion. Under strain to fill pages and airtime, and even stronger pressures to beef up the audiences of a newspaper or channel, some media outlets have resorted in many cases to portraying normal disputes as sectarian incidents. “The problem is that now we are facing a situation where every incident that involves a Muslim and a Copt is reported as a sectarian issue,” says Maha Azzam, expert on political Islam and associate fellow at the Chatham House, a London-based center for policy research on international affairs. Azzam notes that the same incident reported as sectarian strife might occur between two people of the same religion and thus remain unreported. Georgette Kalliny, member of Parliament and board member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) argues that the media is generally responsible in its reporting and reflects a realistic image of society. The problem occurs, she adds, when renowned columnists mix opinions with facts. She points to Islamic thinker Mohamed Selim El Awa, who reportedly said in a September interview with Al Jazeera that some churches have stocks of weapons. “This is a guy who has his position and value in society [...],” Kalliny says. “If [that] is news [and not opinion] and you have proofs, why didn’t he come forth with them and file a legal complaint against those churches? People trust him and so they believed what he said. Speaking with independent daily Al-Shorouk on September 20, El Awa denied making any such claims and told critics to listen to the original interview for his actual meaning. Kalliny’s reflections and El Awa’s attempts to correct his record reflects the importance of reporting the facts accurately the first time: Corrections of false information or rebuttals of false statements do not get as much attention or readers as the original report, especially when it is sensational. This is mainly because of timing — by the time the correction runs, the public attention has moved on to the next hot story. Also, while a ‘sexy’ story may feature an eye-catching headline splashed across the front page, the rebuttal may be buried deep in inside pages. The most blatant example of media blowing up religious issues is in stories about conversion from one faith to another. Religious conversion is an extremely sensitive issue, one that even without media attention can spark protests or acts of violence between families. “None of these issues is ever reported without a slant of bias and sensationalism,” asserts Rasha Abdullah, media analyst and chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University in Cairo (AUC). She notes that the media has in many cases reported unconfirmed incidents of people being tortured, kidnapped or threatened for converting to Islam or Christianity. In July 2010 , after priest Tadros Samaan’s wife went missing over an alleged domestic dispute, reports immediately surfaced claiming that she had been kidnapped by the church and tortured because she had secretly converted to Islam. While many media outlets attributed this to claims by Islamic radicals, others reported them as facts. Naila Hamdy, a former TV news reporter and currently an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at AUC, says the conversion stories were handled badly. She notes the reporting on the incident of Samaan’s wife was all based on rumors, saying, “Journalism quality was compromised […] Obviously, reporting on unverified facts and ‘making’ stories around them is not sound, no matter what the topic is.” Religious Tension? What Tension? On the other hand, many media outlets, especially pro-government ones, err on the side of caution: Rather than sensationalize religious issues, they have tried to ignore stories of sectarianism altogether. Hamdy praises the local media for covering the issue of religious tensions “responsibly” but notes it often downplays issues between Copts and the government. “The media may have been insensitive in not always addressing the issue head on,” says Hamdy, “although I must note that the independent media did a better job.” Ahmed Ammha, an expert on public opinion studies at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), asserts that the state media ignores issues about religious tensions, following unspoken directions by the state. Al Masry Al Youm’s El Zelaky agrees, “In the state press for instance, the direction was towards downplaying, and denying altogether, issues of that sort.” Experts agree that ignoring Copts’ problems in exercising their full rights of citizenship leaves them feeling frustrated and unrepresented and the state feeling safe and non-pressured to solve the issues. Kalliny argues that the media and people have become too sensitive, especially after the Al Qeddessine church attack, about discussing the issues of Copts and admitting the problems. “This is not going to help,” she says. “Give the issue its rightful size, but do talk about it.” Play Nice and Love Thy Brother Although the issue’s roots go far deeper than the role the media plays in the issue, analysts say the media has largely failed to educate the public about diversity and acceptance, and failed to mobilize action towards pushing the state to protect people’s rights as citizens. Azzam explains that there is a lack of societal awareness about human rights, diversity and the rule of law in general, not just about issues concerning Copts. Abdullah notes that people have problems with diversity in general, which includes an increasingly open discrimination against darker-skinned individuals. She points to an incident during a December 30 football match between rivals Al-Ahly and Zamalek in which Zamalek player Shikabala was made fun of by Al-Ahly fans for being dark-skinned. “The media should educate the public about diversity and the benefits of diversity,” she says. An acceptance of diversity, Abdullah believes, won’t come from direct messages telling people to change their views, but rather through media portrayals of Christians and other minorities in TV dramas as normal people with normal problems, not necessarily as part of storylines pertaining to religious strife. Abdullah argues that Christians are unrepresented in entertainment, and when they are represented, it is often superficially. In fairy tale fashion, when the cinema, theater or novels address issues of religious intolerance, the message is clear: Intolerant people will be punished until they learn to love their Coptic or Muslim friend and play nice. “The messages are usually ‘Look how we are getting along,’ […] and this is nonsense,” Abdullah says. “The slogans are very naïve and the message is direct and superficial: ‘Look we’re friends, we’re friends’.” She notes that portraying a Muslim and Christian as friends in a movie will not help Copts get their rights as citizens. The media has been failing in its role as the citizens’ advocate. Ammha says that only after disasters such as Al Qeddessine or the Nag Hammadi church shooting in January 2010 does state-owned media start talking about the issues of Copts and the private media start tackling the issue with less sensationalism and more focus on the concerns and how to resolve them. He notes that this attention vanishes as soon as the media moves on to a new subject, such as how Tunisia’s revolution soon replaced Al Qeddessine coverage at the top of the headline list. Spread of Satellite Channels It only takes a quick glance across the rooftops of Egypt to see the popularity of satellite channels, with even the poorest areas littered with satellite dishes. Becoming even more popular today is the internet, with a rapidly increasing penetration of around 22 percent. Audiences today have a sea of channels, newspapers, websites and blogs to choose from. With the increase in choices has come a boost in the number of voices blaring messages of hate and discrimination in the name of religion. Last October, state officials closed four religious channels over issues with licenses, but experts suspect it was due to those channels allegedly “inciting religious hatred.” While experts believe some channels do have an influence in creating religious tensions, they wouldn’t have as much influence if there were other media outlets educating the people. Abdullah notes that while extremists ideas are broadcast everywhere, their impact is affected by the educational and cultural level of the audience. “If the public was educated enough about diversity they wouldn’t have listened to these messages,” she says. “They would have laughed at them for being stupid.” Azzam argues that while there are few speakers out there preaching, there are many religious programs that broadcast moderate views, speaking out against violence and for tolerance and freedom of choice and religion. “But you also have a minority that exploit the internet and can get through to various [other] channels of the media to justify violence and terrorism in the name of Islam.” Azzam says that although there are religious tensions, violent acts are still the exception, not the norm. “I think the recent attack on the church in Alexandria is a blatant act of terrorism […] This is an extreme act of violence and terrorism that is at the very fringes of the society,” she argues. The problem, she adds, is that “the voices of these [extremists] can be heard by only a few, and to carry out the act of terrorism you only need very few people.” Waking the Watchdog Analysts agree that sectarian tension is a complex issue that cannot be blamed solely on the media, but acknowledge that the media has an important role in addressing the issue, and it needs to step up. Azzam believes the media should highlight more examples of the Muslim community condemning violence, discrimination and attacks on Copts, to show there is a consensus in the whole society against it. “What is important for the media is to be able to show a balanced picture, not only to hear the voice of the secularists against attacks, but also Muslims, Islamists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood who say this is wrong,” she says. In the same manner, the media should cover more incidents of groups attempting to solve the issues of Copts in the country. Experts believe the media should abide by a stricter code of ethics created by the Journalists Syndicate to moderate how journalists cover issues concerning citizenship and sectarianism. MP Kalliny calls upon the syndicate to punish those who violate these ethics. El Zelaky explains that the situation would be better if the media banned coverage based on sectarianism, unless the issue is in fact about a religious strife: “When terms such as ‘Muslim against Copt’ disappear from the media in favor of ‘citizen against citizen’ when any dispute happens of that kind, it will reflect significantly on the audience.” Resolving sectarian issues needs more effort by the state than by the media, but experts say the media should be lobbying the government into action. Abdullah says, “The media is supposed to help by calling for Christian rights.” Hamdy argues that the media, with its newly acquired freedom to discuss such issues, have to dig deeper into the causes and context of the problems experienced by Copts. El Zelaky says it is crucial that the media calls for implementing the principle of citizenship to move beyond slogans. “The media can play an influential role in pressuring to apply those principles and point out those who don’t apply them.” Whether it has done its job effectively or not, the fact remains that the media may have a great weight on its shoulders to remedy the current situation.
There are no comments on this article.

Leave a comment