The Media and Civil Society

Journalism in Egypt tends to overemphasise the role of the government and to neglect the relevance of civil society. This results in a sense of impotence and frustration. But the Internet provides new possibilities, of which better use should be made, says Noha El-Mikawy.

Journalism in Egypt tends to overemphasise the role of the government and to neglect the relevance of civil society. This results in a sense of impotence and frustration. But the World Wide Web provides new possibilities, of which better use should be made, says Noha El-Mikawy.

Nahla, a mother of three children, lives in an upper middle class neighbourhood in Cairo. Several days a week she and a group of women look after single mothers and orphans. Nahla raises funds from rich friends as the scope of poverty goes beyond her limited resources. She does not enjoy support from the media.

Neither press nor television report on efforts of citizens who have confidence in their ability to make a difference. Instead, they tend to run stories on villagers getting killed on highways.

Journalists would then cover how villagers had petitioned for years, without getting the pedestrian bridge they demanded. Reporters would only go to the village once a violent riot involving, for instance, the burning of a bus, actually leads to the bridge being built. That, in turn, would likely be reported as a step undertaken "with the support of the President" or "of the First Lady".

The morale: civil action doesn't pay

The morale of the story becomes: civil action does not pay, but death and vandalism attract attention. Reporting by the conventional media swings from applauding the efforts of the First Family to embarrassing the government. For example, media coverage of the miserable state of education in Egypt is dominated by complaints.

Though necessary and often reflecting civil society views, such media coverage does not highlight civil society efforts for creative, local solutions. Newspapers and political talk shows deal with controversial issues and transmit opinions pluralistically.

They are, however, likely to present their guests as individual experts and hardly take notice when guests are actively involved in civil society.

Staying "close to the state"

Civil society organisations, too, tend to appease the state. They play down individual agency and collective solidarity because they have to deal with state agencies which intervene in civil society in unpredictable, ad hoc ways. NGO activists, therefore, try to affect policy making by remaining "close to the state."

One way to do so is to link their own leadership to that of Parliament or the ruling party. This facilitates regular contact with the political elite – but it hardly establishes the NGOs as relevant actors in the eyes of the media.

Indeed, business associations, labour unions and federations of industry and commerce demonstrate skill in mobilizing the media. Some think tanks and individual businessmen even hire public relations officers.

These, however, are a selected few. Only well-funded organisations can apply such means. Moreover, they constantly weigh the trade off of using the media against nurturing a direct, personal relationship to policy makers.

Lack of effective media skills

In contrast, the majority of NGOs has problems writing effective press releases or allocating resources to foster media relationships. Designing effective media campaigns is made more difficult by the fact that journalists often lack basic skills to find the "news" within complex issues.

Many do not command the investigative techniques needed to sift through contradictory data or to uncover relevant data in a general environment that discourages the free flow of information.

International donors have been organising training programs for journalists. Few include workshops on investigative journalism, new methods of doing research or ethical lobbying. Few organise internships abroad. Most are based on conventional one-way classroom lectures.

Web options

To some extent, the Internet is beginning to change things. Civil society groups have begun to use cyber platforms. However, they tend to simply replicate journalistic material already published in the conventional media. Few cyber platforms apply up-to-date interactive strategies.

Those who do, amplify their public space. Sadly, however, cyber space can be used to transfer money, coded messages and hate ideologies in support of terrorism. This shows that new media are of a double-edged nature.

On the other hand, the WWW serves to inspire confidence in citizens' power to make a peaceful difference. In time, this may dilute the government-focused media culture. The WWW also provides a chance to connect to civil society organisations on the international level, invoking a sense of community bigger than one's national, dominant government.

Take, an NGO based in Qatar. Its Egypt office (with some 200 people) is responsible for the site's content, concept and daily operations. It is conceptualising, with the help of leading Egyptian thinkers in the Centrist Islamic Movement, a mission to make Islam a guide to a modern society, providing the audience with examples for peaceful civic action.

Most importantly, attempts to build bridges to a wide audience. Its Q&A section attracts visitors from all continents. It runs live dialogue sessions such as those to which it invited American parents of soldiers in Iraq.

Articles featuring topics on developmental psychology, film and theatre, desertification, recycling water, demonstrate the site's aspiration to build bridges to a global development debate.

Positive examples of civil society activism

Another promising example is, which started in 2000 as a left leaning movement collecting help in kind (medicine, clothes, etc.) for Palestinians. AGEG also aspires to connect Egyptian civil society to the global anti-globalisation campaign.

Its campaigns against privatisation of utilities and for citizen associations that defend consumers against high prices and bad quality transmit positive examples of civil society activism and reach out to global concerns.

In the meantime, most Egyptian civil society organisations, like Nahla's, work in silence to combat poverty with no or little media visibility. Only a few resourceful civil society organisations connect to the conventional media and even less to the new media.

The reporting culture of conventional media tends to be government-focused (appeasement – embarrassment pendulum). In doing so, the media underplays its role as cheerleader for successful incidents of civil society activism.

Noha El-Mikawy, © Magazine for Development and Cooperation 7/2004

Dr. Noha El-Mikawy is a senior researcher at the Centre for Development Studies (ZEF) in Bonn.

For more information about the Internet and civil society in the Arab world see