How the media covered the Egyptian uprising

February 14, 2011 12:41 am | Updated November 17, 2021 03:44 am IST

S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor, The Hindu

S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor, The Hindu

The stirring events in Egypt, culminating in the end of the hated and venal Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, have held the world in thrall and gladdened democratic hearts everywhere. There are questions about what the armed forces, which have taken charge during this time of transition, will do when serious democratic political reform gets under way. But the answer to that can apparently wait and meanwhile the popular mood in Egypt and much of the west Asian region is one of elation.

As the Egyptian drama unfolded, western newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian , CNN and the other major American television networks, and of course the BBC stepped up their coverage in a big way. Al Jazeera played a sterling role, often being first with breaking stories and providing a refreshingly different, independent west Asian perspective on what was happening.

But how did the Indian news media cover one of the biggest political and human interest stories of recent decades?

In general, the response was slow and indifferent as the people's uprising started gathering force across Egypt. The Hindu , which sent its Dubai-based west Asia Correspondent, Atul Aneja, to Cairo, was an exception. It was quick off the block and Mr. Aneja started doing lively, first-hand, insightful coverage from Tahrir Square before other Indian journalists got there. Next came the news television channels and some other mainstream English dailies. But the lack of background knowledge of the region and of Egyptian affairs proved a handicap in most cases.

Gradually, the news coverage, supported by analysis and comment, picked up. The Hindu published three insightful editorials in less than three weeks, besides Mr. Aneja's analyses and also a number of syndicated articles. The first editorial (January 31, 2011 analysed the causes of the “mass rage” against Mubarak's despotic rule, which brought Egyptians on to the streets to voice their demand for the restoration of democracy. These causes ranged from “long-term structural unemployment through rising and apparently uncontrollable food prices to rampant corruption and the brutality of the notorious security agencies.” The editorial also noted that “Tunisia's brave people, who recently ended Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule, may well have inspired Egyptians.”

The paper gave credit to the influential role played by “ Al Jazeera — the standout voice of aggressive, independent journalism in the Arab world” — in channelling popular discontent through the region.” Furthermore, popular anger against the Mubarak regime was related to its abject dependence on the United States and its allies. The second editorial perceived an interesting shift in the stand of the Obama administration and the third one analysed the unfolding political scenario as the Mubarak regime was fading into history.

In its editorial of February 3, 2011 (‘Choose Egypt, not Mubarak'), The New Indian Express looked at another issue relating to Egypt. It strongly criticised the Indian government's “equivocation” in extending support to the people of Egypt in their time of crisis. “For a nation with ambitions of becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, India's response has been far from confidence-inspiring,” the editorial commented.

Noteworthy feature

A noteworthy feature of the international news coverage was the way participants in the mass protests at Tahrir Square, local journalists, and bloggers influenced the mainstream media and helped change perceptions of what was unfolding. For instance, in the course of an interview on CNN, Mona Elthawy said that the situation was most accurately described as an “uprising” or a “revolt”, not as “chaos” and “unrest.” According to The New York Times , soon after the interview, CNN's banner headline was changed from “Chaos in Egypt” to “Uprising in Egypt.” When thuggish supporters of Mr. Mubarak started attacking peaceful demonstrators at Tahrir Square, the channel's headlines said, “protests turn violent”; and the deadly attacks were called “clashes” between groups. But such characterisations were corrected thanks to accurate reporting by Al Jazeera and inputs from local journalists and bloggers.

Another significant development was that when foreign journalists arrived and began covering the massive agitation, the authorities started intimidating them. The hated regime issued new orders requiring visiting journalists to get accreditation from the Ministry of Information, which ordinarily is a complicated process that takes several days. This effectively prevented many media organisations from covering the demonstrations. As the coverage became more free-ranging and aggressive, several journalists were stopped or taken into custody. Cameras, mobile phones, recorders, and tapes were seized. Al Ajazeera was specially targeted. Journalists had to use every bit of ingenuity to beat a failing system and many of them, including some Indian journalists, succeeded.

These actions only served to isolate the Mubarak regime further, with several western governments condemning the targeting of journalists. The Egyptian authorities were forced to apologise to the media for these repressive actions.

The international news coverage did well to bring to public attention scholarly concerns and anxieties over the fate of the millennia-old civilisational treasures in Egypt's celebrated National Museum in Cairo after vandals broke into the building and did some damage. It was moving to see television images of Egyptian citizens forming protective human chains around the museum and other major cultural sites, including the rebuilt Library of Alexandria. The fears were allayed only after the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities assured the world that the National Museum was safe, and that the cultural artefacts damaged by vandals could be restored.

So all's well that ends well, at least for now. The Egyptian people's magnificent, predominantly peaceful struggle, packed into three weeks that shook the world, was carried powerfully to every corner of the globe by newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet. Hopefully, this interest will be sustained and the next stage of this political transformation will be covered seriously.

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