• 18:50
  • Monday ,24 March 2014

The media threat to democratisation

By Mohamed Shuman; Ahram Online



Monday ,24 March 2014

The media threat to democratisation
Nobody is satisfied with the performance of the Egyptian media, although we follow it and discuss its impact on society. We wonder about the sources of media financing, its mechanisms, ways of dominating it and using it in distorting people's awareness and manipulating their emotions.  
With all this attention and discussion, nobody has moved to change the nature of the media. We can say that all the parties — government, citizens, media persons, civil society and media experts — as if by common consent left the media chaotic. They even became participants, more or less, and from different positions. However, they didn't embark on a specific act to save the media and protect the audience's rights and public opinion.
The government did nothing but complain about media performance, its disregard for the public interest and disinclination to bear social responsibility. Media professors and experts criticised declining standards in professional performance, deliberate neglect of any codes of ethics, the predominance of businessmen and the indisputable influence of advertising. They suggested many reformist ideas, but no one responded.
There are some media persons who make mistakes unwittingly or deliberately but they live with it because they receive huge sums of money and fame. What is strange is that those media persons criticise media performance as if they aren't active players and participants in the media chaos. More strange still, is that the majority of the audience consumes what the media presents, believing it, agreeing with the dramatising of events, and the claims of instant broadcasting.
Of course, it will be said that consent is part of the masses' submission to the media in the age of images, open skies and globalisation. However, this interpretation is incorrect, because the Egyptian audience is divided and going through a stage of conflict and polarisation. This in turn made the audience follow the media that asserts its persuasions, inclinations and deepens at the same time its schism.
The majority of the audience follows only the media supporting the 30 June Revolution and the political roadmap, while a minority — albeit to be reckoned with — almost boycott the official and private media and doesn't believe anything except Al-Jazeera and its sister channels. Between the two camps, a third camp suffers a crisis of confidence in all what the media presents regarding political events and opinion, and runs away from the flow of information and conflicting, contradictory viewpoints towards the world of entertainment, game shows, cooking shows and drama series.
Audience divisions and fragmentation is a result of the media chaos and the division and polarisation in society is one of the reasons for the media chaos and its transformation to other platforms. These platforms for political and social conflict are built at the expense of professionalism and respecting the audience's right to know the facts, and the clear separation between the news and opinion. Whatever the mutual effect between division and polarisation in the society on the one hand and media chaos on the other hand, it is necessary to recognise that there are Arab satellite channels — with Al-Jazeera and its sisters in its forefront — and foreign channels broadcasting in Arabic that have become a local active party influencing and deepening the rifts between Egyptians, threatening the national interest.
Thus, the media chaos isn't confined to declining standards of professional performance and violating the media code of ethics, but in the increase of the roles of foreign media players amidst the Egyptian audience, and the diminishing effect of the state media to the benefit of the media of businessmen and advertisement agencies.
What is most striking is the silence of the government, the elite and the audience about the chaos itself, which deepens and spreads it within society in a way that makes everyone more accustomed to accept and live with it. There is no doubt that continuing this chaos threatens the nation's interests and the democratisation process, especially when we are about to witness presidential and parliamentary elections. This requires balanced coverage and equal opportunities in the media for all candidates, but it is feared that the media will be biased towards a certain candidate or a political current at the expense of other candidates. At this point we will have a one-voice media or one-eyed media.
I think that the current media chaos makes this the likely scenario, where the media of businessmen will rush towards the candidate who has the power, or will favour the candidate who can spend the most on advertisements.
In short, the integrity and transparency of the climate in which the elections will be held and the electors' access to accurate information about candidates and their programmes can't be guaranteed amid the current media chaos. Consequently, the interim president and the government of Ibrahim Mehleb must act swiftly and decisively to regulate the media. From here I suggest that the interim president and government issue three laws that are necessary for media regulation, to be applied effectively, as follows:
1. A law abolishing the Ministry of Information and transferring its powers to a Higher Media Council, National Agency for Journalism and National Agency for Audio-Visual Media, each concerned with its specialty and in the light of the missions and functions stated in the constitution.
2. A law declaring the formation of a Higher Media Council, National Agency for Journalism and National Agency for Audio-Visual Media, stating that the powers and financing of the three authorities will be for one year. After this year, parliament will revise the law of their formation and working methods in a way that guarantees their independence from the executive power.
3. A law that allows the right of media persons to launch independent syndicates that defend their interests, enable them to self-regulate the profession and formulate a code of ethics, noting that this step was delayed for more than seven months. The roadmap declared on 3 July 2013 stated the importance of "formulating a media code of ethics that guarantees media freedom and realises the rules of professionalism, credibility, impartiality and upholds the best national interests." At the same time, the Journalists' Syndicate may upgrade the existing code of ethics in order to be in harmony with changes in the ownership and administration of the print and electronic press.
My call for swift action to create regulatory and supervisory bodies regarding the media may open the way to mistakes. However, there is no alternative but to make this attempt, in order to preserve national security and save the media from chaos and transform it into a responsible media that will participate with integrity and transparency in the coming elections.