The last place Egyptians could count on to get accurate information during their revolution was the state-run media, which at first tried to downplay the events. But before stepping down from office, President Mubarak began losing his grip on journalists. Gamal Zayda, managing editor of Egypt’s most widely circulated daily newspaper Al Ahram, explains why they decided to take a stand against Mubarak’s propaganda machine.
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Just before the regime of Hosni Mubarak was ushered out by the Egyptian military, he issued a stern instruction to his people, essentially, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. What he said was, don't watch satellite news. His vice-president Omar Suleiman repeated the command, turn it off.
[OMAR SULEIMAN SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
INTERPRETER FOR OMAR SULEIMAN: Satellite television stations, whose main purpose is to fuel sedition and drive a wedge among the people and to tarnish the image of people. Only listen to your own conscience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What they meant was, ignore the evidence of your own eyes and ears, your tweets and YouTube videos, your Facebook posts. Pay no attention to the coverage of Al-Jazeera and the rest of the world’s media broadcasting from the Square. In the early days of the uprising, state media was offering fabricated accounts of Mubarak’s great and powerful hold on his nation, downplaying the unrest. Earlier still, Omar Suleiman even suggested that the demonstrators had been infected by foreign notions.
OMAR SULEIMAN: It’s not their idea. It come from abroad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But despite the threats, the violence, the camels and horses charging, the Molotov cocktails hurled, the popular movement proved an immoveable object, and slowly the government started losing its grip, even on the domestic media, as some journalists resigned from their comfortable jobs and joined the protestors.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Today we received the news that the prominent anchor and senior correspondent, the deputy head of the state-run Nile TV, the English-language satellite channel, decided to hand in her resignation.
SHAHIRA AMIN: It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I was heading to work as usual and, you know, the state television building is not far from Tahrir Square, and I heard the chants of the protestors and decided to get off in Tahrir Square and join the protestors, because I'm siding with the people, not the regime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And just when it seemed that the demonstrators in the Square might be losing heart, a media hero emerged to reinvigorate them.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Remarkably today, Egyptian state television played it straight. It reported today’s protests and the release of Wael Ghonim, a Google executive jailed as a Mubarak critic.
[WAEL GHONIM SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Ghonim speaking in an interview on a private Egyptian TV channel. He'd just been released after having been abducted by the authorities and held for 12 days, blindfolded the whole time. When he saw pictures of the dead protestors, he wept, as he thought of his father’s suffering when he vanished without a trace. Ghonim had created the Facebook page that first galvanized many of the protestors. The Internet did not cause this revolution, but it provided the tools its young leaders needed to write its narrative. In fact, as one young protestor told the BBC, Mubarak and Suleiman were unreachably out of touch. These men, said the protestor, had never even sent an email. But even the media Mubarak did understand and had long controlled broke free and started to write their own story.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Even at Al Ahram, the government’s main newspaper, reports of open revolt there, a sign, perhaps, that at least a portion of the government propaganda machine may be cracking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This seemed to be the final straw for Mubarak. Once he'd lost control of the message, he had no strength, nothing to show the military that he would ever regain it. So, the military moved in.
BOB GARFIELD: For news of revolution leading up to the events of this Friday, the last place Egyptians would think to look was Al Ahram, the country’s largest daily newspaper and one of its most venerable. Al Ahram is owned by a foundation controlled by the state and, as such, has for decades been friendly to the Mubarak regime. But in the past five years, under the editorship of Mubarak crony Osama Saraya, Al Ahram has developed into a propaganda machine, devoting hagiographic and occasionally utterly fabricated coverage to the former president and his regime. That’s why many were shocked this week when Al Ahram somehow rediscovered its journalistic soul and reported honestly on the revolution in progress. The day before Mubarak stepped down, I spoke to Gamal Zayda, managing editor of Al Ahram. He told me that this marks the beginning of a long road back to credibility for his paper. GAMAL ZAYDA: We have been suffering from lack of credibility for the last few years. We had great writers working for Al Ahram but they had to leave the newspaper under the pressures coming from the chief editor.
BOB GARFIELD: And that’s Osama Saraya.
GAMAL ZAYDA: Exactly. The guy is not professional journalist, not efficient, but has been appointed because of his relation with the presidential institution, and he was doing the propaganda. I didn't do that myself. I always criticized the government. But the guy is very well paid, even more than the editor of The New York Times or The Washington Post, and that’s why he is justifying what is he doing in an unethical way.
BOB GARFIELD: In the early days of the uprising, with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in Tahrir Square and violence breaking out and thuggery, attacking demonstrators, your newspaper was reporting that there were perhaps 4 or 5,000 people in the Square and that they were mostly the agents of the foreign press. What were the editorial deliberations at Al Ahram in printing those lies in the paper?
GAMAL ZAYDA: That was because of the editor himself pressing everybody. You know, he himself was responsible for that, not his colleagues. In fact, the first day of uprising, he instructed the editors to have the main headline like “Millions of Egyptians Rally Behind Mubarak,” which was [LAUGHS] false.
BOB GARFIELD: The opposite of reality.
GAMAL ZAYDA: Yes, unfortunately.
BOB GARFIELD: Before the events of January 25th, Page 1 in Al Ahram had become the Hosni Mubarak fan page?
GAMAL ZAYDA: Most of the days, unless there is a natural disaster or there is war somewhere in the world or a very, very, very big news story which we cannot avoid. The president himself considered Al Ahram his own newspaper, reflecting his news, reflecting his policies, defending his policies, and so on. BOB GARFIELD: The most famous example of using Al Ahram to represent the interests came when President Mubarak was visiting President Obama in Washington, and your editor doctored a photograph. In the actual photograph, President Mubarak is lagging behind the President of the United States and the other dignitaries. As it appeared in Al Ahram, President Mubarak was in the foreground, appearing to lead the group. It’s [LAUGHS] incredible!
GAMAL ZAYDA: This is something should not happen. It was a fatal ethical mistake made by the editor. I mean, he was flattering his boss. That’s why he doctored the photo. And it was a big scandal worldwide.
BOB GARFIELD: Why did it take ‘til now to stage a mutiny against Osama Saraya and the heavy hand of the state?
GAMAL ZAYDA: In fact, we had fighting regarding the editing policy for many, many years. I mean, many people refused this editorial policy, but if someone said no, they will fire him or her. But many people, they don't have the margin to move to have a job in some other newspapers, like in the United States or in UK or in any western democracies. So if someone has been fired, he will be in the street, so it will be difficult to earn his living.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you tell me what was the moment when you and your colleagues decided at long last to assert yourselves?
GAMAL ZAYDA: After the 25th of January, and what’s happening in the street in Tahrir Square and the revolution of the youth everywhere in Egypt, the journalists in Al Ahram decided to stop the previous editing policy.
BOB GARFIELD: The expression here is “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” When did it finally become too much? Was there a moment in the newsroom?
GAMAL ZAYDA: Yes, when the journalists and reporters see that the - the whole country in revolution and the editor-in-chief insisting to change the reality, and that’s why they protested and they said, no, enough is enough. I'm one of them. We cannot do it. I mean, we have to reflect the reality. We cannot lie.
BOB GARFIELD: And what happened? Did - did Saraya storm out?
GAMAL ZAYDA: He had to back off. He had to back off, since then.
BOB GARFIELD: Is he there now?
GAMAL ZAYDA: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: I mean, is he still sitting in his office?
GAMAL ZAYDA: Yes, he is in his office, but the colleagues are running the newspaper the way they see, according to the right journalistic values.
BOB GARFIELD: How can you assure me that you and the colleagues who have finally taken a stand are not just opportunists blowing with the political winds?
GAMAL ZAYDA: Why you call them opportunists? I mean, this newspaper doesn't belong to Hosni Mubarak or just a specific person. It’s the right time for journalists to dismantle the relation between these newspapers and the regime, to start applying the ethics of free journalism and stop deceiving the readers.
BOB GARFIELD: This is a difficult question to ask, but I have to ask it. Over the last five years, have you yourself personally been a collaborator, at least by not resigning in the face of horrible ethical trespasses? GAMAL ZAYDA: We had many fights, I mean, with the management, regarding the editorial policy, regarding the censorship, regarding not to let many writers and journalists to run their stories on the newspaper. We had a very big meeting today with the chairman. He is different from the editor-in-chief. And 300 journalists were discussing with him the future of the newspaper and how not to repeat what happened again, to restore our dignity, our pride and our professional values as it was before. I mean, these millions of young men and women, they went to the streets and they made the revolution. Everybody, since the day one, they knew that this is the end of the regime - that’s it!
BOB GARFIELD: Gamal, thank you very much.
GAMAL ZAYDA: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Gamal Zayda is managing editor of Al Ahram.
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