Laying propaganda to rest

At last night’s UNESCO’s 2011 World Press Freedom Day event, a distinguished panel examined the freedom to report in light of the Arab Spring.

One of the panelists was Shahira Amin, the brave Egyptian news anchor who quit in protest at Mubarak spin. She made it clear that the Arab Spring won’t change the situation on the ground for many local journalists. “The media in the Arab world has pretty much always been controlled by the state,” she said. “Autocratic regimes use state media to tighten their grip on power and this of course has been particularly true in the case of Egypt and Mubarak; even before Mubarak, Egypt has lived for 60 years under military rule.”

Amin had a stockpile of horrifying stories about the propaganda run by the Egyptian media. One tale in particular stood out. During the protests, one of the “independent” channels hosted a young girl, whose face was covered, who claimed she’d received training outside the country before joining the protests in Tahrir Square. It was later discovered that she was a producer working for that same channel. The level of control exercised over the country’s media was absolute, so how to transform the Egyptian media into a credible source of information?

Amin said: “[At] the start of the uprising the media in Egypt was in denial and ignored the protest. You would switch on the telly and find a programme on tourism to Sinai. Then the media attacked the protesters. In the final week of the protests there was outside pressure on the new government that Mubarak had put in place to free up the media and do away with censorship. Google executive Wael Ghonim, a founder of one of the Facebook groups who had summoned the protesters to Tahrir, was hosted on one of the independent channels and he told the story of how he had been blindfolded and locked up behind bars for 12 days for starting the uprising. That was a turning point in the revolution. The next day, the number of protesters more than doubled and this says a lot about the power of a free media.

But Egypt is a country where 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line of two dollars a day. These people have no access to the internet, nor satellite channels. The state media is their main source of information. The day Mubarak fell, the media shifted 180 degrees — they backpedalled furiously, falling over themselves to be on the side of the revolution, but their credibility had already been lost. It will take a long time for them to regain public trust. And yes, they are now hosting opposition figures who weren’t allowed to appear before, but these are the same employees with the same mindset. There needs to be a complete change in recruitment policies and a restructure of editorial practices and training for journalists.”

“Flashback” Shahira Amin, the number two at Nile television, explains why she resigned from Egyptian state television. “I am on the people’s side, not the regime’s”

Route to revolution

Digital activism has long been a way of life in Egypt; from monitoring political corruption to protesting against police brutality

Egypt has always been one of the fastest and most enthusiastic cultures in the Middle East to embrace technology. Activist Egyptian bloggers such as Wael Abbas made their reputation by posting incendiary videos showing endemic police brutality and the use of torture in interrogation. In at least two cases, evidence of torture was circulated online and led to the prosecution of police officers.

“Now everyone can see what’s happening in the police stations. That’s something that touches a nerve in ordinary citizens who are not political activists,” Abbas says. One Egyptian online activist created the ‘piggipedia’, a Flickr account showing a gallery of senior Egyptian police officers photographed at demonstrations.

The murder of Khaled Said in Alexandria last June became a new rallying point for protest, after he was beaten to death in public, in front of witnesses, by plain-clothes police officers. Autopsy photographs of his badly battered face circulated immediately on the internet, sparking a month-long round of demonstrations and vigils – many of which were organized and announced on Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook group ‘We are all Khalid Said’ later became a hub for the January uprising.

The internet was already well established as a virtual meeting point for evading the country’s harsh laws against political activism under President Hosni Mubarak. In 2008, a 30-year-old civil engineer named Ahmed Maher created a Facebook group called the 6 April Movement to commemorate the date of a violent clash between police forces and a group of striking textile factory workers in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla al Kubra. The page then took on a life of its own, gathering more than 70,000 members and expanding beyond labour activism to encompass all manner of political activity. “We can’t have a proper headquarters. It’s not like we can just rent an office,” Maher says. “But on the net there are groups like ours meeting 24 hours a day.”

Last March, employees at the popular online news site Islam Online went on a mass strike to protest against editorial interference by the site’s management. The strike was broadcast over the internet thanks to a live feed on Bambuser, the video-streaming website. In addition to documenting the chants and vigils, many strikers used the streaming video feed to give testimonials directly to viewers.

Before the uprising in January, active bloggers such as Ahmed Maher and Wael Abbas were shifting their energies to Twitter and other online platforms. The appeal, they say, is a new level of interactivity and the creation of a virtual community. Abbas, in particular, has employed his Twitter account in a novel way. After years of posting videos that embarrassed the government, he would be detained, questioned and searched while leaving or arriving in Egypt. On at least one occasion, the authorities confiscated his laptop. As a result, whenever Abbas headed to the airport, he would tweet the news to his 5,000 followers. If he was detained or questioned, he would tweet that as well and the Egyptian online community would immediately rally behind him. In early February, as the Tahrir Square uprising was entering its second week, Abbas was arrested, questioned and released.

The parliamentary elections last year were the first to receive digital scrutiny. Anyone following #egyelections on Twitter was deluged with information from the estimated 44,000 polling stations spread across 29 governorates. Activists, journalists and election monitors all posted and forwarded the latest updates and pictures from around the country. If a monitor or a journalist was turned away from a polling station by police, the incident was instantly posted or tweeted. When Sobhi Saleh, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated MP, was attacked in Alexandria, the news circulated through Twitter so fast that journalists and human  rights workers were able to interview him in hospital.

“When a new report came in from our reporters in the field, the first thing I would do is put up feeds on our Twitter account, before I even posted the news on the website,” says Lina Attalah, co-managing editor of the English edition of al Masry al Youm , Egypt’s largest independent daily newspaper.

President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic party won more than 90 per cent of the vote in a victory that generated widespread condemnation and allegations of voter intimidation, strong-arm tactics and old-fashioned ballot box stuffing. The electronic evidence posted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube amounted to a damning and comprehensive dossier of the day’s injustices.

Until the uprising in January, activists like Maher and Abbas would express frustration at the inability of Egypt’s robust internet political scene to translate into mass demonstrations. Most Egyptian protests would still amount to the same group of people invariably surrounded by central security riot police. But that’s all history now.

This article is taken from the current issue of Index on Censorship magazine, The Net Effect. Click here to subscribe

Cracks widening in Egypt’s internet wall  

As Egypt enters a seventh day of open revolt against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the country’s internet access continues to be largely shut down. That extended closure is one of the clearest signs that Mubarak still sees this as a fight he can win.

The longer the internet shutdown continues, the more and more mysterious the government’s thinking becomes. The last week has proven not only that the protesters don’t need Twitter and Facebook access to challenge the system but also that the world’s media don’t necessarily need it to bring details, images and even videos of this mass revolt to the world.

Each day brings new evidence of the complete futility of the gesture. Prominent local bloggers and online activists are simply calling friends overseas to tweet details on their behalf, the flood of journalists entering the country are almost all coming in armed with Thuraya satellite phones and Bgan receivers that enable you to get online from anywhere.

At this point, it’s likely that the main victim of the government’s online blockade will be the Egyptian economy. The country’s banks and stock market were shut down on Monday and the overall economic damage from the government’s decision to cut Egypt off from the world is something that will be hard to measure for a while.

Yesterday I met up with a prominent blogger and digital activist who blogs and tweets under the name of Sandmonkey. He gleefully told me that cracking the internet blockade was becoming an international cause célèbre for the international digital expression community. There were plans afoot, he said, for a group of “hardcore open source guys from Germany” to arrive here with satellite phones and all the equipment they needed to set up a local internet network completely beyond the reach of the authorities.

“They’re going to bypass the whole system,” he told me.