The Most Powerful Weapon of Egypt's Ruling Generals: State TV

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

A studio TV crew prepares for the program 'Direction' presented by Amro Shinawi (center) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 5, 2011

The hallways are dark, curving, windowless passages. The ceilings drip with water in some places. People and papers are shuffled about, and control room walls flicker with multiple screens conveying the live feeds of faces, buildings and words. For an outsider, it's nearly impossible to get in; the building's walls are rimmed by fences, soldiers, and coiled stacks of barbed wire. And on the inside, throughout the maze — where it's often impossible to tell day from night or even the cardinal direction — soldiers clutching semi-automatic rifles stand guard at critical junctions, ever protective of the task at hand in this Orwellian fortress that employs some 43,000 people in the heart of Egypt's capital. The precautions might sound extreme for a government ministry that conducts neither security nor justice. But you could say that this is where the magic happens.

Welcome to Egyptian state TV. Once the mouthpiece of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, it's now the tool of the generals who took over after his fall. And there's a reason it looks this way. "It's the SCAF's [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] most powerful tool," says Saleh Fekry, a youth activist who ranks dismantlement of the state's media machine as even more pertinent than the reform of its hated police force. "That's why you have heavy loads of officers inside the building to protect it."

In the year since Mubarak's fall, the state media has pulled off seemingly contradictory feats: broadcasting the figures of Egypt's plummeting stock market while simultaneously proclaiming the market's strength; convincing viewers that pro-democracy NGOs have sought to undermine Egypt's burgeoning democracy; and obtaining the kind of exclusive footage of protester-police clashes that no private network could ever hope to get — because the film is shot from the Interior Ministry. Throughout it all, the youth activists — who have seen their own public approval ratings drop as the result of a vilification campaign by state TV — have come to understand better than most that the media can be a powerful weapon. And as the country struggles to shed its decades of authoritarianism and transform itself into a free and democratic society, a highly politicized and partisan state TV — in a country where at least 34% of the population is illiterate — may be one of the most significant obstacles in its way.

News talk shows on the Nile News Channel, the state's 24-hour answer to private networks like Al-Jazeera, are rife with discussion of "thugs," warnings of "foreign" interference in Egyptian affairs, rising insecurity, and crime. And youth-led protests against military rule are labeled dangerous and destabilizing events, driven by foreign agents. The regime's use of media comes at a critical time, media experts say, when public views on rights and policies could prove decisive in shaping Egypt's post-Mubarak system. A recent episode of the evening news show, "The Other Dimension" reported on the role of street children and thugs in this month's protests. "They were kids who didn't know what was happening or even the meaning of the revolution, which raises a lot of questions about why they were there, and who was behind them," the reporter said over a montage of violent footage. "A lot of people blame the NDP [the ex-ruling party] for these kids because they are trying to destroy the revolution."

There are no official statistics on just how many of Egypt's 85 million watch state TV, or read the state-sponsored newspapers. But public opinion polls seem to echo TV rhetoric, hinting at its wide impact. "Repeated exposure to something over an extended period of time is going to have a powerful effect on how people construct their reality," says Rasha Abdulla, an associate professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo. "If whenever you flip on the channel, you hear someone refer to the people in Tahrir as thugs, then that's how you're going to think of the people in Tahrir." This is especially true for viewers who have no personal connection to the historic and continuing events at the square. "Then that becomes your only way of constructing your reality."

The effect has proven devastating for Egypt's youth protest movement, which has struggled to condemn the military's abuses in the face of a state media that paints them as stability-wrecking thugs. One group of youth activists launched the "Kazeboon" movement — literally, "liars" — to combat media with media, projecting footage of military abuses in central Egyptian squares and neighborhoods. But their competition is stronger. New media like Kazeboon may be flourishing, says Nancy Okail, the Egypt Director of Freedom House, a Washington-based democracy promotion group. "But at the same time, there is the question of: how many people does it reach? It's about influence." (As of Wednesday, Okail was still on trial, along with 42 other NGO workers, as part of a government crackdown on foreign financed non-profits; State TV has fueled official and public outrage against the NGOs.) And whoever wields the most influence plays a decisive role in public opinion. "Public opinion is a very crucial factor in democracy. It affects how people choose their candidates, who they support, what kind of issues and cases they stand by and what they stand against," she says.

So far, the winning narrative may be the one propagated by state TV. Abdulla says the state networks have created a "culture of fear" that directly serves the military's interests. News reports highlighting thuggery, crime, and a faltering economy, while placing blame squarely on protesters and "foreign" agents, play a fundamental role in hindering Egypt's path to a free and transparent democracy. "It's the oldest trick in the book. You spread fear and then people are willing to relinquish their personal rights," says Abdulla. "And when you know that there's a lack of security everywhere you go, how likely are you to do things [to protest the status quo], and how likely are you to accept impediments to your freedom?"

Activists say that one of the most dangerous examples of state media's impact since the uprising came on Oct. 9th, when the army and Muslim supporters massacred more than two dozen mostly Christian protesters outside the TV building — popularly known as Maspero. Anchor Rasha Magdy, speaking live on Egypt News at the time, did more than objectively cover the protest. "The slogan on our screen and the anchor, for half an hour, was saying that the good Samaritans of Egypt should go down to the streets and protect the military against the Christians," says Abdulla. "My god — there is no way on earth that she could have said that without clear directives." The episode sparked a furious backlash by liberal activists and Christians against state television, but failed to spread to the larger population. Some local news sources reported that Magdy was investigated (when TIME asked to speak to her, state TV employees said she was "on vacation"), but she was later absolved of any wrongdoing. "I tend to think of Maspero now as part of the SCAF entity," says Abdulla. "It's not a matter of taking a few people out of office or even changing the minister of information . . . We need a media revolution."

Those who work for state media argue that the attacks are overblown. "There are some faults, but I think they're exaggerated," says Makram Mohamed Ahmed, a columnist at the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper. "They accuse the press of being the ghost behind the violence. When they don't have the courage to state the reality, the easiest thing to do is accuse the press."

But crucially, perhaps: the need for reform has not been lost on everyone inside the machine. Nile News' Editor-In-Chief, Ahmed Sharaf, wants to see state TV's employee payroll cut by more than 90%, and its long list of channels cut down to two or three. "Most of them are rubbish," he says with a laugh — and most of the system's 43,000 employees don't even show up to work. The networks are more than 13 million Egyptian pounds (roughly $2.2 million) in debt, he adds. (Nile News doesn't run commercials in between programs — just an endless stream of evocative video montages that pay tribute to the revolution, the military, and the power of parliament). "They should turn state television into a corporation that can produce and sell its productions and generate money," he says. He envisions a future state TV that more closely resembles Britain's BBC. If the whole system is restructured, he argues, "then there wouldn't be any need for a Ministry of Information" because a corporation would be able to operate with independent editorial policy.

But that dream may be a long way from realization. A recent demonstration for change by others within Maspero earned six news staffers an investigation by the general prosecutor; another staffer received a two-week suspension for raising a banner that read "Freedom for Nile News Channel" behind the anchor during the airing of a popular talk show. And the manner in which state media has been constructed over the decades — built almost entirely on a patronage system that begets loyalty, Abdulla says — suggests there is little desire for change from the inside out. Serious reform like the vision articulated by Ahmed Sharaf is unlikely and unrealistic under military rule, she says. But once there's a will, there's a way. "It depends on how fast we achieve political change," she says. Publicly funded media isn't inherently bad, and ultimately, an independent media body could further Egypt's ongoing revolution, rather than hinder it. "You're supposed to have something that really serves the public, not the government."

With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani/Cairo