“Egyptian journalists used to appear on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya because the channels were the freest in the region,” Mirazi told me. “We knew there are limits, because you can’t talk about the emir or the king, but for us it didn’t matter,” he said. “But now, since Egypt is liberated and the Egyptian media is liberated, there is no excuse for any one of us to accept red lines from another station on their government while we don’t have red lines on our own government.”
Mirazi’s ex-boss, Al Arabiya news chief Nabil Khatib, says the host was using the live show to push his personal agenda. “He blackmailed his own channel,” Khatib claims. Even some of Mirazi’s friends think he was grandstanding. Still, I asked Khatib whether Al Arabiya had done any stories on the topic Mirazi had proposed: the effect of the Egyptian revolution on Saudi Arabia. “Nobody had the chance nor the need to have an hour on air about the possible impact of Egypt on Qatar, nor on Saudi, nor on Morocco,” he insisted. Other news organizations that have tackled such stories would disagree.
But the Al Arabiya news chief acknowledged the limits he faced in reporting the spreading turmoil. “Let me be frank,” he said, “political structures in the Arab world are not ready for those revolutions, nor for any coverage of those revolutions.” And, “as much as they put security pressure on the protests, they put political pressure on the media.” He recounted a phone call he received from Egyptian Information Minister Anis Feki at the height of the protests. He was “shouting at us, ‘stop covering Egypt,’ ” and warned that “ ‘somebody will come and they may attack you. I cannot control things.’ ” Not long after, Al Arabiya’s Cairo bureau was stormed and shut down by pro-Mubarak sympathizers who beat up one reporter and kidnapped another.
Over at state-run Egypt TV, the pressure was even more intense. At times, watching ETV during the protests was like watching an alternate reality. On January 28, Al Jazeera showed a split screen—live images of a police vehicle on fire outside the gates of ETV as protestors clashed with police. This, next to ETV’s own live signal showing a calming panoramic shot of the city.
“We were given press releases from the ministry of interior right from the first day and we were told to say exactly as we were told,” recalls Shahira Amin, the former anchor and deputy head of ETV’s English-language Nile TV. Instead, she resigned. “I decided I had to choose. I was either a mouthpiece for the regime or I was on the people’s side, and that’s why I quit.”
ETV News chief Abdelatif el Menawi admits that it was difficult to know whom to obey. “Many powers were confronting each other and each of these powers had its own opinion or goal. We had the presidential palace, ministers, army, intelligence, the street—and every one of them was pushing in a direction. And we were in a situation trying to adjust to keep the TV and Egypt safe.” The pressure, he says, was tremendous. “Nobody can imagine.” Like Al Ahram and other state-controlled newspapers, ETV did an about-face when it became clear Mubarak’s days were numbered.
Not long after my conversation with Menawi, I received an e-mail from Shahira Amin. She asked whether I thought she should go back to work for Egypt TV. Attached was a note she had just sent to her old boss, Menawi. “I salute you for your steadfastness and courage in the face of adversity,” she told him, adding that she was ready to consider coming back “with my head held high.”
The Egyptian media may have won some breathing room, but one question is, For how long?
“A couple of days ago, I was slightly more optimistic. I’m not sure now,” Yosri Fouda, of ON-TV, told me in late February when I caught him just after he got off the air. The Information Ministry had been dissolved, but army officers were overseeing the media, and I asked if he was being pressured by the new military rulers. “Not directly, but you feel the heat,” said Fouda, who felt his reputation afforded a degree of protection.