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Capilano U prof, in Cairo, skeptical of media coverage

[Editor’s note: The Tyee received this email this morning from Capilano University instructor Dr. Azza Sedky, who spends her winters in Cairo. It was written before violence broke out in Tahrir Square today.]

The picture on the national Egyptian channel is of Cairo during curfew. The streets are totally empty except of tanks and armed vehicles. Cairo is indeed deserted—a very unusual sight for a bustling, chaotic , car-jammed city. Sometimes the screen is divided to reflect the empty streets on one side and the looters and pillagers who have been caught on the other side. Other times the picture is of the armed forces in a protective mode—a very eerie sight but comforting nonetheless.

Change channels and watch Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, or even CNN, or BBC, and the picture changes. The scene is from Tahrir Square where thousands of Egyptian protestors are standing their ground calling for change. No depiction of the forces doing their job, of people abiding by the curfew, or of the looters getting caught.

And on all channels, the vivid wow scene becomes the most notorious, be it of a pro-Mubarak gathering, or of the other side, with protestors holding an explicit banner denouncing Mubarak or of a fallen victim lying in his blood. It all depends on which channel you watch. And these dramatic scenes are repeated again and again even days after the event has long come and gone. I’ve heard folks exclaim, "Is this happening again today?" They wonder and don't really know.

One can easily see that agendas change dramatically within the different circles. As the days pass, the Egyptian National channel begins to show the scene in Tahrir Square but from afar. It also begins to show the pro-Mubarak scene—those who are asking the protestors to calm down and see if the promised changes will occur. The other channels are still stuck on Tahrir Square, talking to protesters, estimating the numbers (and assuming them to be in the millions).

Indeed, Al Jazeera began encouraging and edging Egyptians to remain strong and continue their mission. It spoke to the opposition, with would-be leaders such as Al Baradei or Amr Moosa, and with the protestors in Tahrir, but it was adamant in not showing the ordinary Egyptian—the one who is fed up of all this and trying to return to normalcy. It also focused on shortages of bread, gas, and cigarettes of all things, a shortage I have not seen personally.

Egyptians have a saying, "John Doe wants a funeral where he can scream and shout." I've heard this saying many times in the last week from regular Egyptians describing other channels. The meaning is clear: channels are focusing on the negative to ignite the anger; in other words, normalcy does not sell or bring in viewers; normalcy doesn’t have a return. And this is the norm with media, but never has it been so clear and vivid.

I've never seen a scene depicted so differently. All the channels are portraying sides or versions of the truth but simultaneously making choices that indeed are crucial in the final version coming out, the one that reaches the Egyptians, and the outside world for that matter. And since Egyptians have been glued to the tv screen with curfew limited to 3 p.m., and the Internet out of commission, these different final versions have been playing havoc with the emotions of all Egyptians.

Is the media deciding how Egyptians think? Is the media fanning a revolt and playing a crucial role in making fundamental decisions that can indeed make or break a country? Do folks take these scenes as a given or with a grain of salt? Do some channels, Al Jazeera, for instance, have hidden agendas?

Egyptians had lived in a censored society in Nasser's time. In my twenties, I used to receive my letters -- romantic ones from my husband-to-be -- from abroad, opened and sealed with a printed note, "opened by the censor." Since my husband-to-be was quite outspoken, we were often followed during our outings.

That was then, but it remains ingrained in the Egyptian mentality. Now, and during the last 15 years in particular, and with the sudden openness to the world via satellites, channels galore, and the Internet, Egyptians are free to choose and evaluate what they see. But do they? Are they equipped to sift through the news and weed out the bias and prejudice? Is this influx of information playing a positive or negative role in their lives?

The end result is that Egyptians are living in a torrent of words and scenes. The bombardment is ongoing. I hope that the Egyptians are not going to be the losers in this mayhem.

Azza Sedky teaches in the Communications and ESL departments at Capilano University.

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