Who’s afraid of free media? Attempts to restrict new media in its challenge to state-led discourse

Many more individuals in the Middle East today than in previous generations have the capacity and means to question the relationship of the citizen to the state and the power of formal media to inform notions of civic engagement and patriotism.

“The West hates us.” “There is a ‘war on terrorism.’” — these are statements many of us who grew up in Egypt became accustomed to hearing from corporate or state-influenced media outlets. It is often difficult to uncover the nuances behind such messages in a country where media has been controlled by demagogues for decades, and, until recently, I never really established a solid understanding of the foundations on which they are based.

My parents believed the best way to protect me, my brother and sister from holding hateful views toward certain nations was to instill in us the need to listen, analyze and look for evidence, but also to stay silent for our own personal safety. However, with the emergence of online forums like Facebook and Twitter, we began to break this silence and to publicly question the things we had been told. This is a different mode of citizenship to the one that was internalized and adhered to by previous generations and traditional media.

Western academia has generated three main models for understanding the ways in which traditional media coverage can inform and shape public opinion and perceptions: “Framing,” or agenda setting, a concept that was first proposed by Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman; “cascading activation,” theorized by professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University Robert M. Entman; and the “spiral of silence,” which was put forward by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Framing is seen as the ways in which a communicator passes on conscious or unconscious judgments, uses certain keywords to support an argument — playing on various stereotypes — and provides a coherent message. This is different from the cascade activation model, which starts with the public, where certain strongly held beliefs and ideas are widely held and work their way up to decision makers. Finally, the spiral of silence theory presumes that people, in most situations, are constantly aware of the opinions of those around them, and that they adjust their behavior, opinions and decisions in order to align with the strongest, most influential party or parties. This is made more complex by the presence of social collectives that can threaten people who deviate from majority views with isolation.

These theories, however, presume everyone has the ability to gauge or measure the opinion climate in the society they are in. I would suggest that this is not always the case. Building on the idea of framing, I would like to propose a concept of “digging and filling,” in which framers exert their power and determine what to fill in and what to omit, elevating certain details over others. In my mind this is different to framing, which has the ability to construct and reconstruct peoples’ social realities and decision-making processes, influencing the ways in which they think and consequently react. Digging and filling is a more direct attempt to uphold the status quo and maintain the moral and social fabric of society, while simultaneously threatening or silencing any opposing voices.

But this isn’t a one-way process, of course. The responses of individuals are largely affected by how much information they are privy to, and how much they believe this information will impact them personally. For example, a majority might theoretically support the rights of religious minorities in Egypt, but may not challenge the state’s restrictions on church building or the enacting of sectarian policies. This same majority might consider such rights to be mandatory, however, if framed in terms of their own civil liberties.

Let me give an example: President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made the following comments after the deadly attack in 2017 on Belal Mosque in the Rawda village, North Sinai, in which over 300 people were killed: “The Armed Forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and restore security and stability with the utmost force.” Egyptians must “unite in steadfast determination against evil forces,” he asserted, and never let them tear the country apart. This reference to “evil forces” has been repeated in state-owned media regularly over the last few years as part of Sisi’s strategy to frame all voices in opposition to the state as “evil” and to unite the country against its efforts to silence them.

Of course, the Egyptian regime isn’t alone in deploying such a strategy. In the declaration of his notorious “war on terror” in September 2001, former US President George W. Bush, said: “The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror, they were ‘acts of war’.” He described the “battle to come” as a monumental struggle of “good” versus “evil,” words that were picked up and used by American and British media in turn to frame their subsequent violent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The framing of such a view is particularly effective if it is situated within a strong nationalistic discourse and plays on a popularly held fear of internal and external threat.

Since the military began its offensive in the Sinai Peninsula, Sisi has asked civilians to make sacrifices in order to protect their country from the danger of such forces. While there has been an increase in attacks on Egyptian security forces and civilians since 2013, particularly in the peninsula, Sisi’s careful framing of them within a narrative of borders, national threats and “evil forces” has ensured the regime can continue to operate with a degree of impunity under the pretext of an emergency law in the “nation’s interests.” This discourse is only believable for the majority, however, if certain information is conveyed and withheld, hence the digging and filling. Within this rhetoric, state media or the military spokesperson might publish the number of soldiers and security forces killed in an attack in North Sinai, for example, but omit to mention the total number of civilian casualties, or refer to them as “terrorists” for the purpose of supporting a carefully constructed narrative.

But regimes can no longer fully control a sphere in which news is updated and spread in real time. Dissident voices persist within Egyptian media, particularly with the advent of online journalism and the spread of social media. The impact of such media on public access to information has not escaped the attention of the Egyptian government, with consecutive regimes seeking to limit access to certain sites and social media, particularly since 2011, when millions of citizen journalists and ordinary people uploaded real-time material of the uprising as it unfolded, undoing state discourses of rebel youth and exposing police violence.

This continues to be the case, with online support groups for families of detainees that seek to expose violations in Egyptian prisons, and reports by local Egyptian rights groups, despite the crackdown, on sectarian violence that is not adequately dealt with by the authorities, the entrapment and persecution of atheists and LGBT+ individuals, the violent clearing of land in North Sinai to create military buffer zones, the persecution of Nubian activists, and so on — the list is extensive. Without online testimonies, videos, court reports, Facebook support groups, witness accounts, Tweets from trials, etc, much of this would continue behind closed doors.  

Amid the heavy restrictions in North Sinai for local and international journalists, and limited public information made available by the military spokesperson, a number of citizen journalism initiatives were started on Facebook by local residents seeking to tell their own stories. Sinai News 24, which began in 2013, has become a source of information for international media seeking to report from the embattled area, as has Khawater Sinawy (Thoughts of a Sinai Resident). Both rely on a network of volunteer reporters, but the latter hasn’t been updated since 2017.

Any online citizen journalism attempts like this are likely to be restricted further by Egypt’s new media and cybercrime laws, which stipulate penalties for any blogger or social media influencer with more than 5,000 followers if they publish anything the regime considers to be damaging to the “interests of the nation,” or attempt to propagate “false news.” This sends a clear message that no one is permitted to oppose the party line without consequences. Under the pretext of preventing the spread of fake news, these new laws will heavily restrict online journalism, demonize certain social media users and attempt to encourage service providers to collect and share data on users. All of this will take place despite Egypt’s constitutional guarantees to freedom of speech, which stipulate that, “Every individual has the right to express their opinion and to publicize it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law.”

The state’s attempts to limit access to information in order to continue framing events within certain discourses are ongoing and pernicious. The level of ongoing threat to journalists and political dissidents is enough to persuade many to cease their efforts to make information more widely available. Such a fragile and defensive strategy to control access to knowledge, however, is unlikely to persist long term, and much has changed since my parents years ago advised me to analyze but remain quiet.

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Image of The Cairo Internet Exchange (CAIX) building, the most important internet hub for Egypt and the whole North Africa region, courtesy Heinrich Holtgreve. You can view his photo story ‘The Internet As A Place‘ for Mada Masr here.

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