What Egyptian State TV Says About The State Of Egypt

Jul 9, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 6:23 am

It sounded like a slip of the tongue. As millions of Egyptians took to the streets calling for President Mohammed Morsi to step down, state TV anchor George Heshmat casually used the word "revolution" instead of "protests."

This signaled that state TV was beginning to assert its independence from a government that was never a good fit for it anyway. It was clear that something had changed at the voice of the state — even before Morsi was pushed from power.

Now, seven armored personnel carriers are positioned outside the building in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, and soldiers stand at the ready through its corridors.

But the soldiers are not in the newsroom.

"You can say that we made a war here to deliver our message and to erase all the stereotype images that have been about us in the past," says Samar Mahdi, an editor there.

Controlling The Coverage

Egypt's state-run television station has now worked under four different leaders in the past 2 1/2 years, following the military's ouster of Morsi last week.

State TV lost much credibility with the Egyptian public during the 2011 uprising when it blatantly sided with ousted President Hosni Mubarak. But it is still seen as the source of official information.

Mahdi says that she, like much of the news team, decided to sign a petition refusing to follow any directives from the presidency in the week leading up to the June 30 protests.

"We said that we, the Egyptian television, we are standing with the people, with the people's opinion, and we will cover in a very professional way what is happening in the Egyptian street," Mahdi says.

She also says they aren't going to be the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood, either.

Khaled Mehanni, a supervising editor, says that as rival protests began to escalate two weeks before Morsi was forced from power, the presidency started trying to tightly control the coverage.

"We were told to cover pro-Morsi demonstrations and ignore all other squares and parks," Mehanni says.

He says that the atmosphere became even more heated when the station aired the military's 48-hour ultimatum to Morsi without the consent of the information minister and disobeyed the directives of top management by sending reporters out to opposition protests.

A senior aide to the deposed president adamantly denies that the presidency had tried to control the coverage, pointing out that state TV had never been particularly pro-Morsi. Morsi had trouble winning over many government institutions.

Veteran anchor Amr Shennawi read the lead-in to the military statement announcing that Morsi had been pushed from power last Wednesday, and he says he felt incredibly happy and relieved at that moment.

"Like we having a big rock over your chest and for long time and all of a sudden it's gone," Shennawi says.

No Military Intervention, For Now

Rasha Abdulla, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, questions why the state TV employees changed the tone of their coverage.

"Did they do that because it is the right thing not to follow directives from the regime and then no matter who the regime is, they are not following directives anymore? Or did they do that just because they didn't like that particular leadership?" Abdulla says. "In my opinion, for the most part, it was the latter."

She says that she doesn't think Morsi's government ever had full control of state television to begin with.

No one from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has appeared on state TV this past week. State TV reporters say that they have invited members to appear; a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood denied this.

On Monday, after clashes between the military and Morsi's supporters killed at least 51 people, State TV's coverage mirrored the military's depiction of the events and ignored the Brotherhood's account.

Economics correspondent Nevine Hassan-Nada says that so far, the soldiers in the building have not interfered with coverage. "And believe me, if they try to interfere, they're going to get exactly what President Morsi got. I promise you," Hassan-Nada says, laughing.

Other media haven't been so lucky. The military is intervening in other outlets less satisfied with its move against Morsi: It has shut down three private Islamist TV channels since the former president was ousted.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Egypt's state broadcasting organization has faced a particular challenge over the past couple of years. State TV, after decades in the service of the Mubarak regime, suddenly, after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, owed allegiance to an interim military government. A bit later, state broadcasting came under an elected Islamist president, and now it's back to the military.

Reporter Merrit Kennedy went inside State TV to find out how the tone of coverage shifted after the ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

GEORGE HESHMAT: (Foreign language spoken)

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: It sounded like a slip of the tongue. As millions of Egyptians took to the streets calling for President Morsi to step down, State TV anchor George Heshmat used the word revolution instead of protests. This signaled that State TV was beginning to assert its independence from a government that was never a good fit for it, anyway. It was clear that something had changed at the voice of the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)

KENNEDY: Now, seven armored personnel carriers are positioned outside the building, and soldiers stand at the ready through its corridors.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

KENNEDY: But the soldiers are not in the newsroom. Samar Mahdi is an editor here.

SAMAR MAHDI: You can say that we made a war here to deliver our message and to erase all the stereotype images that have been about us in the past.

KENNEDY: State TV lost much credibility with the Egyptian public during the 2011 uprising when it blatantly sided with ousted President Mubarak. But it is still seen as the source of official information. Mahdi says that she, like much of the news team, decided to sign a petition in the week leading up to the June 30th protests, refusing to follow any directives from the Islamist presidency.

MAHDI: We said that we, the Egyptian television, we are standing with the people, with the people's opinion, and we will cover in a very professional way what is happening in the Egyptian streets.

KENNEDY: We are not going to be the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood, she says.

So, who's in charge now? Who's in charge of the State TV?

MAHDI: Until now, no one exactly.

KENNEDY: Khaled Mehanni is a supervising editor, and he claims that as rival protests began to escalate two weeks before Morsi was forced from power, the presidency started trying to tightly control the coverage.

KHALED MEHANNI, SUPERVISING EDITOR: (Through translator) We were told to cover pro-Morsi demonstrations and ignore all other squares and parks.

KENNEDY: He says the atmosphere became even more heated when they aired the military's 48-hour ultimatum to Morsi without the consent of the information minister and disobeyed the directives of top management by sending reporters out to opposition protests. A senior aide to the deposed president adamantly denies that the presidency had tried to control the coverage, pointing out that State TV had never been particularly pro-Morsi. Morsi had trouble winning over many government institutions. Veteran anchor Amr Shennawi read the lead-in to the military statement announcing that Morsi had been pushed from power last Wednesday, and he says that he felt incredibly happy and relieved at that moment.

AMR SHENNAWI: Like we having a big rock over your chest, and for long time, and all of a sudden it's gone.

KENNEDY: Rasha Abdulla, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, questions why the state TV employees changed the tone of their coverage.

RASHA ABDULLA: Did they do that because it is the right thing not to follow directives from the regime, and therefore, no matter who the regime is, they are not following directives anymore? Or did they do that just because they didn't like that particular leadership? And in my opinion, for the most part, it was the latter.

KENNEDY: She says that she doesn't think Morsi's government ever had full control of state television to begin with. Nobody from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has appeared on state TV this past week. State TV reporters insist that they have invited members to appear. A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood denied this. On Monday, after clashes between the military and Morsi's supporters killed at least 51 people, State TV's coverage mirrored the military's depiction of the events and ignored the Brotherhood's account. Economics correspondent Nevine Hassan-Nada says that so far, the soldiers in the building now have not interfered with their largely pro-military coverage.

NEVINE HASSAN-NADA: And, believe me, if they try to interfere, they're going to get exactly what President Morsi got. I promise you.

(LAUGHTER)

KENNEDY: Other media haven't been so lucky. The military is intervening in other outlets less satisfied with its move against Morsi. It shut down three private Islamist TV channels since the former president was ousted. For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy, in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.