Censorship in Egypt-Television versus the Internet
I got an e-mail from a journalist with the German media “Spiegel Online” last week. She was researching an article on tv programs in the Middle East after the Arab Spring and came across my paper on Bassem Youssef.
She asked me two interesting questions:
- Do you think that the new generation used to less censored new media outlets such as YouTube or Facebook are also making itself felt in the programming of (new and private) Middle Eastern tv channels – is it becoming more daring / taboo breaking?
- Did the Arab Spring – or the associated societal upheavals – have an impact on programming? On Producers? Existing Red lines? Target audiences?
Unfortunately, as this was the weekend of my oldest daughter’s graduation from college and my wife’s birthday, I did not receive her e-mail until after her deadline.
For whatever my thoughts are worth (a pfennig?) I do have answers to these questions.
First, I think it is a mistake to suggest that the Internet was less censored. The Internet was censored much the same way independent newspapers and television were censored. It was just less effective, for several reasons.
As with broadcast media, there were some government sites that expressed only the government views. For anti-regime bloggers, as for journalists, security people would warn, or arrest and detain, or arrest, torture and release, or make disappear, those who crossed the wrong lines. Moreover, the regime’s agents were careful to ensure that the lines were never clearly established, so that bloggers, like journalists, went in fear that what they said might be the cause of arrest.
Additionally, we need to remember that the Internet has its own “censorship” rules outside of Egypt. Thus the Piggipedia, a Flickr page to which protesters uploaded photos of secret police to “out” them, and thus weaken their power, was shut down by Flickr when a trove of photos taken from the secret police headquarters was uploaded on the grounds that the owners of Piggipedia didn’t “own” the rights to those photos.
At the same time, the Internet was different than broadcast news in the ways it responded to these forms of censorship. This can be seen in the following two ways:
First, the Internet is distributed, and hence hard to get hold of. It has no editors to act as gatekeepers. Editors are the weak link in mainstream journalism. It is unwieldy to try to stop every individual journalist, but editors have names and families, and are vulnerable to state pressure for everything their publication or TV show produces. In the case of the Internet, the sheer number of bloggers makes it virtually impossible for the secret police to monitor and censor every blogger. Moreover, the blogs are not published by state or state-authorized presses or by state-controlled broadcasting equipment, or using state-authorized frequencies, so they can’t be easily shut down (although the regime famously did shut them down temporarily)
Second, the Internet’s link network makes it serve as a kind of imagined community in which all those blogging and Facebooking, etc. in opposition to the regime see read each other’s blogs and are encouraged by the community they find there. The regime’s primary project with regard to news media was that of intimidation–the arrest and detention of a leading editor or news producer is intended to have a chilling effect on other news organizations.
This worked differently with bloggers. They were, first of all, much more anonymous. When one blogger was shut down by the government, the chill it sent through the community was sometimes counteracted by the way many members of the community rallied round the arrested person, blogged about the arrest, shared information and sought to involve networks outside of Egypt in protesting the arrests.
Finally, because I think the Internet was censored much as TV and the press were, I do not see a direct link between Internet “freedom” and rising freedom of the press.
Egypt looks to me right now–from afar, alas, as I have no direct ethnographic data–as if the media is trying to find its way in a power vacuum. Some news media are desperately trying to figure out where the centers of power is so they can return to serving it. Others are flexing their muscles in pursuit of greater audiences and advertising revenues, and trying to determine just where the limits might be, or if there are any.
One of the functions of the Bassem Youssef show and similar experiments with parody is that they test the limits. Yet Youssef has admitted in interviews that he respects the red line of not mocking SCAF directly, at least for now. On the other hand, some shows with much smaller audiences–the short-lived YouTube show monatov, for example, directly mocked SCAF and apparently got away with it (the show ended in June in part, I understand because of low viewership, and in part because the star started a new movie role).
I think once Egypt settles into a new equilibrium, with (I expect) a somewhat more representative government, and the power centers become clear, the media, too, will settle into an equilibrium. There will be a handful of news media pushing the envelope, and big cluster in the center, and a group that serves each of the new power centers–assuming, as I am, that in the new Egypt power will be somewhat more distributed among political parties, Parliament, and the President and his cabinet.