Saturday, May 5, 2012

When truth becomes a casualty

Egypt's new-found press freedom has no accountability
May 03, 2012

by Mahmoud Salem

When writing this article, one is quite tempted to take the easy way out: Write about the importance of free speech, how a free press emboldens democracy and provide some sort of semi-horrifying/semi-inspirational anecdote about a journalist who was very brave and faced the odds and now everything is better and democracy stands triumphant, all because of a free press.

And quite naturally, since I am one of the New Media pioneers (remember when it used to be called just blogging? I miss that), not to mention a "voice of the Egyptian revolution", I am supposed to take this stand and advocate that position with all the might and power of the Jan 25 revolution.

I really want to, but … I can't, because there is a problem in the premise and it is one that won't go away anytime soon.

It used to be easy to advocate this point of view, that of a simplistic world where the evil government oppressed the good journalists and bloggers, and where the Internet offered us the only space of freedom of speech that we were allowed to exist in.

The basis of this view was quite evident: The regime used to ban newspapers, arrest journalists, and the journalists would fight back in courts and we would stand in solidarity defending the right to free speech and freedom of the press.

This view was something that I subscribed to until we had the revolution and the regime was gone and for a good while we had no censorship, during which time, slowly but surely, that point of view went through a serious case of deterioration. Let me explain.


Before the revolution there were two kinds of press in Egypt: Newspapers that were against the regime and newspapers that were trying to be mediators between the regime and the people (whether by being state-owned media or "centrist" journalistic institutions).

Then the revolution happened and there was suddenly no regime. That is when the fatal flaw showed its face.

The anti-regime newspapers suddenly had no regime to oppose or ministers to expose and the mediating newspapers suddenly had no regime to mediate for. It all went downhill very quickly.

The anti-regime newspapers milked the old regime for all its worth, spending month-upon-month writing about the scandals of the regime and its ex-officials, most of which were articles that were poorly sourced and mostly based on "hearsay" and "truisms" or "common-knowledge".

The mediating newspapers didn't have a single editorial line that they could or were able to follow, which used to lead to opposing headlines on the same topic in two consecutive days, without a hint of an explanation or apology for the 180-degree switch in 24 hours.

At a time in which the whole nation was looking for guidance and truth, the Egyptian press lacked both, despite the fact that they had all the freedom in the world.

Or maybe because of it - because now we had all the freedom, accompanied by zero accountability, and serious resistance to any form of it as well.

Hubris or power-drunk are not the right words, but they are the first to come to mind. And then things got worse.


You see, this model presented the journalists of the old-regime a golden opportunity to do the same thing to revolutionary forces through their old or new media outlets, which led to a series of incredibly false and scandalous reports about the revolution's symbols, none of which they were ever held accountable for.

The press became a battlefield of conflicting false accounts and exaggerations, truth was the first casualty, and all credibility went out the window.

We suddenly lived in a Huxley-ian world where there was no truth, only narrative, and the people got flooded with such conflicting information that they either believed what they wanted to believe (whether it was "The revolutionaries are foreign agents" or "Mubarak still rules us") or tuned out completely from the entire process and stopped paying attention to any of the current events or caring about their outcome.

Until this day, this still holds true: No one has identified the problem or tried to solve it in any real way, given that all the players have seemingly decided that credibility no longer matters, as long as the content is controversial and sells issues.

So, yeah, after an entire year of this, I am not entirely sure that the free press truly supports democracy in our case. However, it does get people talking, so if silence truly kills democracy, I guess our press is doing its job protecting it.

This article commemorates World Press Freedom Day today. Mahmoud Salem is an Egyptian blogger, activist, writer and entrepreneur. He was also one of the leading voices in the Jan 25, 2011 revolution that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

He is currently involved in many development and transparency projects for a better Egypt.

[I do not know what the role of the press should be in a society. Especially in the internet-connected society. When news was reported in the morning papers and the evening TV news, there was a tranquility, a stability of the day. A certainty that news happened, but we will learn of it after dinner.

Then headlines were reported every hour. Then every half-hour. Then there were news magazine shows on TV. And news was now on tap. News came at whatever time it happened. Breaking news! Newsflash! There was an immediacy to the news. It just happened! I just told you! Now you know! 

So what are we to do with this news? With the immediacy, there was also an implied urgency. "This just in! Singapore's TFR has dropped to 1.2!" So what are we supposed to do about it? Go home and make babies?

I think the role of the press is to be the voice of the people and the mediator for the govt. If the govt is incompetent it should report the incompetency and be a voice for the people. If the govt is competent, it should help explain govt policies. If the govt is corrupt, it should expose these corruptions. If the people are unreasonable, it should help educate the society at large. But that's just my opinion.]

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