On 7 September, Egypt will hold its first presidential elections allowing multiple candidates to compete for the presidency. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) is currently carrying out a monitoring project to record how the elections are being covered in Egyptian media. Initial findings show that the coverage so far has been biased in favour of the current President, Husni Mubarak. RAP 21 spoke to Moataz El Fegiery, coordinator of the project.
” Media monitoring is essential, as it is an effective tool to measure how the state and political contestants treat the media, and also how the media treat contestants. Valid and credible media monitoring projects provide the general public with benchmarks to judge the fairness of the whole election process. Media monitoring also represents an important tool to highlight cases of undue interference in the editorial freedom of the media or attempts to undermine their independence,” says El Fegiery.
The progress report from the first stage of the media monitoring project was released on 25 August, and covers the first week of the election campaign (August 17-23) in eighteen daily and weekly newspapers and magazines, as well as four state-owned TV channels and two private ones. The report showed that there is a general bias in favour of President Mubarak in both state-owned and private media. Although improvements were found in the amount of time allotted to cover the campaigning activities of the current president, he still received a disproportionate amount of air-time and print space compared to the other candidates.
The report also found these same stations eager to avoid presenting an overly critical view of any of the presidential candidates. This has resulted in diluted coverage of all of the presidential candidates, including the president. According to the report, this tendency “undermined the opportunity of using electoral campaigns as an occasion to deal with public issues in a critical and enlightened way. As a result, coverage was highly repetitive, and electoral campaigns failed to act as a tool to raise Egyptian citizens’ interest in elections and politics in general.”
Certain independent newspapers were also found to be very biased. “This bias reached its peak in the El-Destour newspaper, where 97 percent of the coverage was allocated to President Mubarak, although coverage of his activities was generally negative.” On a more positive note however, the report noted that “it can be said that the press has in general portrayed a more vital electoral scene. It has provided space for variety of opinion and was daring in dealing with controversial issues. As a result, it was more effective compared to TV.”
Certain violations by the Egyptian authorities were also noted, such as interfering in the campaign of the Al’Wafd party by removing the campaign’s slogan “etkhan’na” (“Can’t breathe anymore”) from all campaign and advertising material under the pretext that it contravenes the standards and criteria set by the Ministry of Information.
El Fegiery says the CIHRS progress report has been widely covered by the Egyptian media. “The state funded media paid attention to the findings, however, they covered the report in a selective way and published what was positive for them, rather than any criticism.”
One significant impediment to monitoring has been the inability of the CIHRS to carry out any field observations. “This is not the first time the government has refused to cooperate with human rights groups. But we will not wait for their permission – we will monitor whether the government it approves or not. On the contrary, the refusal of the government to cooperate with international and national observers raises questions about the fairness of the upcoming elections.”
Special training been carried out by the CIHRS for the 15 monitors that were recruited to implement the project. “The training involved the study of standard rights, freedoms and responsibilities regarding media during an election, how media monitoring is an important part of the overall analysis of the pre-election environment conducted by a domestic media monitoring organization as well as the legal and political environment for the media and election in Egypt.”