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.
Two months later, things became even more complex. In mid-April, the same week Mubarak and his sons were arrested on orders of the country’s interim military rulers and blogger Maikel Nabil was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the military,” the so-called Supreme Council distributed a letter to Egyptian editors ordering them not to report on the armed forces without advance permission. “Freedom of expression is guaranteed as long as it is respectful and doesn’t question the armed forces,” Ismail Etman, head of the armed forces’ moral affairs unit, told a news conference.