Egypt: Subterfuge and State TV

Regulation & Policy

The size and influence of Egypt's state media makes it a formidable weapon in the arsenal of the nation's rulers. Broadcasts by the state-owned television channels, collectively referred to as State TV, are viewed by millions of Egyptians nationwide, securing an unparalleled ability to control the media narrative, writes Louisa Loveluck of Chatham House.

On 9 October, State TV reported that a march of Coptic activists had attacked members of the military, killing three. The allegations inflamed an already tense situation. It has since been revealed that the army fired on the protestors, not the other way round. In an embarrassing u-turn, the Egyptian authorities were forced to admit that there were no military deaths that night. However, the version of events implicating Coptic activists as the catalyst for violence gained widespread traction, even being picked up by the international media. The fall-out from the night's events has yet to run its course, but State TV's divisive sectarian narrative has soured relations between sections of Egypt's Muslim and Coptic communicates.

The ongoing clashes in Cairo have been subject to the same narrative shift. Despite widespread video evidence that show security services firing on demonstrators, State TV has framed the violence that has left 28 dead and over 1700 injured as an attack on both the nation and the Revolution. In a statement broadcast on the channel an official from the Ministry of the Interior attributed the violence to those who wish to delay the elections. State-run media has continually framed events within a nationalistic framework that is then used to discredit opponents.

The latest target of such accusations has been the 'foreign hands' of external actors. On November 22, State TV has shown footage of three men, alleged to be American students, alongside what are said to be petrol bombs. The validity of these claims matters less than their symbolic power. The images themselves represent an emotive substantiation of previous media claims regarding the desire of foreign powers to subvert the country's revolution. Such fears have also been invoked by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to delegitimize a host of opponents. NGOs, particularly those involved in democracy promotion, have consistently faced allegations of foreign funding, and legislation is being drafted to clampdown on organisations that receive donations from abroad.

It is difficult to identify the origins of State TV's editorial policy. It may be linked to orders from the military, alternatively it is not implausible that editors are mimicking the well-worn strategy of reporting in a tone that suits the aims of a higher power. Previously it was Hosni Mubarak; now it is Field Marshall Tantawi. Despite the seismic changes that have taken place in Egypt since January, power structures remain largely the same and it is easy to imagine that old habits die hard in a state-run media eager to ingratiate itself during a period of uncertainty. As a recent Chatham House workshop found, Egypt's media is accustomed to working under strict rules, wary of criticising the nation's rulers and referring editorial decisions to the very top as part of standard practice. This legacy is clearly proving difficult to escape in the post-Mubarak era.

In locating Egypt's problems outside the nation itself and exhorting viewers to support the army, State TV casts a veil over what should be a transparent transition of power. Even if the military is not determining editorial policy, its aims - to avoid scrutiny and keep its political and economic power-base intact - are certainly being protected to the detriment of the democratic process. So long as State TV is allowed to continue broadcasting, it is hard to see how the SCAF can credibly claim to be overseeing a transparent or honest transition of power.

Louisa Loveluck is administrator of Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme.