A Conversation with Hanan Badr: Journalism’s Future in Egypt
CAIRO—It’s not an easy time to be a reporter in Egypt. Just last week Amnesty International said the government is using the courts and jail sentences to intimidate journalists.
“In Egypt today anyone who challenges the authorities’ official narrative, criticizes the government or exposes human rights’ violations is at risk of being tossed into a jail cell,” said Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty, in a statement.
Spokespeople from the government have denied these claims and insist the arrests are legitimate and say that due process has been followed. They have said that such accusations are politicized.
In light of this atmosphere and the revolutions that have preceded it, Al-Fanar Media spoke with Hanan Badr, a lecturer at Cairo University’s department of Journalism and a scholar who has studied journalism transformation in Egypt.
Badr got both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the department where she currently teaches, but obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Erfurt in Germany, where she published papers on how terrorism in the Arab world is framed by the press in Egypt and Germany. She writes about politics and media for Al-Tahrir newspaper and Qantara online magazine.
On a sunny spring day in one of Zamalek’s lush garden oases flanked by traffic-ridden roads on all sides, Badr spoke of how things have changed in Egyptian journalism since the Arab uprising and the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Are journalists in Egypt reporting the truth or have they become less impartial after the waves of new governments in recent years?
The media in the Arab world and especially in Egypt is more politicized and in a way more sensational—even the style of it has changed. It’s written in a gossip and entertainment news tone but applied in a political context.
To really get the truth of a reported incident, you need to read articles from a couple of newspapers because some may downplay or exaggerate the number of victims, the events that preceded and the way the whole issue is framed. So I find you have to read multiple newspapers to get closer to what actually happened. As a reader you have to double check, and who has time to do that? Why would you waste your time browsing and reading different versions of the same story for an hour? I do it because it’s my job.
In all, your analysis of the Egyptian press seems pretty damning.
It’s not all bad. ‘The media’ is not one homogeneous group. There are conflicts of interest within the media and then there are the underdogs. The Internet offers a sphere for smaller outlets, human-rights groups and independent think tanks—but the politics behind the big media and who owns it tells you a lot. It’s of course the business elite of the Mubarak era—they’re the ones who got the licenses in the first place, and knowing who says what helps a lot in understanding the context of a news report.
This atmosphere isn’t just caused by developments in the last year. It’s a decades old issue. We have a lot of socio-economic problems and this is just one of them and so we have to admit that it’s a really tough situation—I wouldn’t know where to start with a solution.
If this isn’t a new problem, what’s the direction of things? Is the situation getting better or worse?
When we compare the situation now with our aspirations and hopes in 2011, it’s very gloomy of course.
The state has learned and adapted based on its experience from the first revolution. It became more immune—it knows how to navigate its way through popular dissent. And at the same time the citizen is also not the same. Egyptians have managed to topple down at least four presidents and they know that they can do it. At the same time, one should not forget there’s fatigue, there’s public fatigue, and there’s an economic crisis. What the wider public has understood now is protesting alone will not solve the problems.
A year ago, the public was much more silent. Yet, when we talk about repression, for example the number of detainees or torture cases, the situation has not changed, in fact it’s worse. Repression hasn’t lessened, but the public speaks out more.
So the Egyptian public is more critical, but the government is more oppressive? On balance then, is the outlook better or worse?
I don’t know. I hope it gets better, but it’s going to hit rock bottom before going up again.
You are faced with a new devolution. History is like a pendulum. If you press too much, someone has to push back. The problem is that some people, the political Islamists, they see ISIS as the solution.
If the government is so repressive, do you have to be careful what you say in the classroom?
We have large lectures and you never really know who’s there or what their politics are—so one always has to be careful when teaching, but it’s not that I fear for myself because I’m not an activist in any sense.
I make sure I never compromise my integrity. I would never say something that’s a lie out of fear. But I have to be cautious and so I might not say things or spell them out exactly.
Consequently, do you think your students have a good sense of the journalism profession when they graduate?
Our institute is often criticized for being too theoretical and not practical, although that could also be a worldwide phenomenon, rather than a problem unique to us.
When students graduate they say the first thing they hear in the workplace is to forget everything that they were taught in journalism school. We teach them the textbook importance of objectivity, fairness, balance and so on. The problem is the real world does not function like that in the Egyptian context. So in order for the students to survive and have jobs they have to adapt. And we cannot neglect the impact of the first five years in training a young journalist.
* This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.