June 26, 2019

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  • Analysis: Media coverage of Sinai kidnappings

    Screen grab shows army tanks deployed in Sinai to free seven soldiers who were kidnapped last week.

    BY MAI SHAMS EL-DIN Cairo – The dramatic abduction and release of seven Egyptian soldiers in turbulent North Sinai last week ended with their “mysterious” release, but the flames of the media coverage of the week-long ordeal are still filling the air.

    A wave of inaccurate news, attributions to unknown sources and contradictions characterized the media scene both in the daily talk shows and in print.

    A conscript of the armed forces and six police personnel were kidnapped on May 16 by militants in response to the alleged torture by police of a Jihadist arrested in the summer of 2011, according to official media.

    “The amount of misinformation in this case was indescribable,” North Sinai activist Mohamed Ahmed El-Bolok told The Egypt Monocle.

    He accused journalists of misleading the public by spreading false information, driven only by their desire “to get the scoop”.

    “The misreporting ranged from inaccurate details to ‘unnamed sources’ who usually leak false news, to presenting false stereotypes about the people of Sinai,” he said.

    Talk show hosts even went as far as misnaming certain areas in Sinai like Kilo 21 district and Salah El-Din village, he says.

    “There is no area in Sinai called Kilo 21. I don’t know where the journalists got this name; and Salah El-Din is not a village, it’s a street in Rafah City. When a well-known talk show host says that a whole village will be bombarded soon by the army to strike at the kidnappers, can you imagine the impact of such a rumor on Egyptian citizens, let alone Rafah residents?” he asked.

    Misinformation also included spreading false information regarding a military operation to free the abducted soldiers, an operation that never took place.

    Several media reports referred to an attack on Rafah City by military forces after which the military declared that one militant was killed.

    A few hours later the Associated Press reported that the body of the alleged target belonged to a man who had drowned, and the convoy that the military fired at was simply his funeral.

    “The forces encountered a funeral convoy of eight pickup trucks and when the vehicles refused orders to stop, the troops thought they were gunmen and opened fire, security officials said,” AP reported.

    Although Egyptian authorities confirmed that the abductors belong to militant Jihadist movements, the Egyptian media continued to frame Sinai residents as traitors who harbor terrorists, El-Bolok complained.

    “We’ve been suffering from this stereotype for decades. Sinai is only remembered on anniversaries of the 6th of October, or when catastrophes like this take place. We are completely forgotten the rest of the year,” he says.

    The Dilemma of Information Access

    But journalist Mohamed El-Bahrawy, who covered the kidnapping for the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, believes that the problem springs from a serious lack of transparency from the Egyptian authorities.

    El-Bahrawy asserted that the main sources of information to journalists in this incident were security sources, including police, army forces, general intelligence and military intelligence officers, as well as tribal leaders who acted as primary negotiators between the kidnappers and the army.

    “The most accurate sources were the military intelligence, but their problem is that sometimes they would deliberately leak wrong information for their own security purposes,” he said.

    El-Bahrawy added that unlike other incidents of terrorist attacks in Sinai, the kidnapping issue witnessed unprecedented level of lack of transparency from the authorities.

    “Only some journalists who have friendly relations with security sources were able to get the news right,” he explained, adding that security personnel usually insist on remaining anonymous, which exacerbates the lack of credibility in the eyes of the public.

    El-Bahrawy published a story on Friday, May 24 including a list of nine names of Jihadists allegedly involved in the kidnapping of the soldiers.

    “A high profile security source in the North Sinai Security Directorate gave me a document including the names. The paper had the logo of the Ministry of Interior and its official stamp,” he said.

    “After I published it, I discovered that three of the names had nothing to do with the incident. One of them actually called me and threatened to kill me,” he said.

    El-Bahrawy said that the reasons why the security source leaked these names remains unknown.

    “Security is not concerned with accuracy, nor do they care about public opinion and social well-being, let alone the lives of the journalists that can be easily jeopardized. All they care about is to serve their own security purposes,” he added.

    He said that often, security personnel themselves are not considered primary sources of information.

    Most of the security sources, especially the police, get their information from tribal leaders, as they are unwilling to interact directly with Sinai residents who are traditionally hostile towards Egyptian police forces, El-Bahrawy explained.

    “So we are left with a serious information gap,” he said.

    A Restrictive Freedom of Information Draft Law

    Critics say Egyptian authorities are not taking any serious steps to ensure a transparent system that would allow journalists to have better access to information.

    A group of Egyptian civil society organizations slammed a draft freedom of information law authored by the Ministry of Justice, deeming it restrictive and accusing it of placing more barriers to access to information.

    In a statement released last week, several organizations said that the body which organizes the information disclosure system is controlled by the executive authority, as the members are directly appointed by the government, and lacks proper representation of civil society advocates.

    “In addition, the chairman of this council is appointed by the president, which makes the whole public body under the control of the executive; hence it loses its autonomy,” the statement said.

    Although the draft law grants the right to free access to information, it restricts this right through a “national security” clause as a legitimate justification for declining information requests.

    “The bill has failed to give a precise definition of  what constitutes ‘national security’,” civil society advocates said in the statement. “The civil society organizations [CSOs] have emphasized the importance of defining this term to deter any arbitrariness in its application or interpretation which would lead to turning the exception into the rule.”

    But El-Bolok says the issue is far more complicated.

    “There is a serious issue with access to information, but journalists bear the burden as well. They know nothing about Sinai or its people. We need strong local media that can reflect the real image of our society,” he says.

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