War coverage a tough balancing act for Egypt TV
Minutes before the afternoon program at Nile News, dozens of mobile phones ring all at once, unanswered. Women in head scarves surf Google's Arabic news site. A technician tinkers with the link to Baghdad. And a panting messenger races in with a tape from an antiwar demonstration in nearby Alexandria.
The afternoon news editor, Hani Fathi, checks the lineup: The demonstration, some 25,000 people strong, will be folded into a broader piece on protests worldwide, going in toward the end of the program, right after the briefing by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
While intense antiwar and anti-American sentiment continue to grow in Egypt, the state-run TV station here - from which the vast majority of Egyptians get their news - is working overtime to retain a semblance of neutrality about the war.
But this approach to war coverage goes beyond the professional call of duty and gets at the heart of the complicated, somewhat conflicted attitude of Egypt's leadership. Analysts say, President Hosni Mubarak needs to convince Egyptians that his sympathies are clearly against the war and with Iraq's people while at the same time taking care not to alienate Washington, a close ally which gives Egypt $2 billion annually in aid.
In order to reflect a sober, united Egypt, Mr. Mubarak oversees all channels of public expression. His reach extends from the tenor of the demonstrations, to the statement of the religious clerics, to the way the whole war is presented in the state media. His minister of information sits on the ninth floor of the TV building.
"The images we see upset us here, of course, and our personal emotions are strong and yes, we are angry," says Fathi. "But we must, as professionals, disconnect and steer toward balance."
"What takes priority depends on what's happening, and on what's important to our viewers," he says, signing off on the line up, " ... and to the leadership."
Independent satellite cable stations, such as the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, may call coalition forces "invaders," turn suicide attacks into "martyrdom operations," and fill their screens with gore and long reports on antiwar demonstrations. But not here.
"Our point of view is that we are against the war. We did not want it. But we also want to be responsible in what we present," says Hassan Hamed, CEO of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union, whose offices sprawl out on the eighth floor, right below those of the minister.
"Of course, there is a cultural linkage between Egyptians and the Iraqi people. We do not conceal our emphasis or interest. Our hearts are with those people, and we need to reflect that in our coverage - but we try not to be sensationalist. We do not want to inflame Egyptians any more."
"Egyptian TV is owned and run by the Egyptian government, so you can not expect it to reflect anything other than the official Egyptian perspective," adds Hussein Amin, chairman of the department of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo. "It is a balancing act all around."
Speaking in Suez on Monday, Mubarak showed himself a master at such an act - warning that US actions would only serve to "create 100 [Osama] bin Ladens" and charging that war would have catastrophic effects - even as he insisted that international commitments obliged Egypt to keep the Suez Canal open to all vessels, including coalition warships. Mubarak has also granted US warplanes overflight rights. Tuesday, he announced that a senior Iraqi diplomat in Cairo, thought to be working for Iraqi intelligence, would be expelled.
The expulsion was mentioned on TV only in passing; the overfly rights forgotten completely that day. Meanwhile, when a poster of Mubarak was burned at an antiwar demonstration downtown last week, no one watching Nile News or any other program created in the TV building would have heard about it at all.
"We can take some liberties, but only to a certain extent," says Fathi. "We use our judgment. We have to inform on what's happening ... but we don't want outbursts in this country."
Before charging Egyptian media with self-censorship, it would be better to see what is going on these days in American media, quip those who work here.
"US coverage does not impress me at all. They don't care about being neutral and go about bragging about US military prowess," says Hamed. "When my wife sees me watching US network coverage on cable she asks: Why do you torture yourself?"
Hala Hashish, President of Nile TV International, the foreign-language arm of Egyptian TV, is busy reviewing an interview with the US ambassador to Cairo, which will air in its entirety on her evening program. "Look, proof we show all sides!" she says. "The American public is much more brainwashed. The media there is acting in a way we used to be accused of years ago - that is picking and choosing the news that suits their agenda. In Egypt this sort of news does not fly anymore."
"Sometimes I feel we have too much neutrality and freedom in Egypt," adds Attiya Shakran, director of the Government Press Office. "The Arab voice in [Washington] does not get as much airtime as we give American voices in Cairo."
In a country where ordinary Egyptians are reportedly using their mobile phones to dial any number in Iraq, picked at random, and declare their solidarity with the Iraqi people - it's no surprise that Nile News gets a lot of viewer complaints. Some call in to ask for more images of "the Iraqi heroic stand," others ring up to say they don't want to hear another word about the Kurdish opposition, and others still write long, furious letters denouncing the segments on US troops bringing in humanitarian aid.
"Many people accuse us of being unpatriotic, even un-Arab," Hamed admits. "But we are just trying to tell it like it is ... which is not easy."