BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away. I'm Brooke Gladstone, reporting this week from Cairo.
[SOUND OF CHANTING] Friday, April 8th. Protestors gather in Tahrir Square. It's the biggest demonstration since the revolution began here on January 25th, ultimately ending Hosni Mubarak's rule of Egypt, where he presided over 30 years of dictatorship and decline. This was — is — a revolution about economic opportunity, human rights, justice and democracy. It is not about religion, although thousands around me are jammed together, kneeling on broken cement and mud with their foreheads resting on rugs or scraps of paper, on the backs of those kneeling in front of them in prayer. Those who are not Muslims stand with them, respectfully. Never have I seen a revolution so fired by faith that is not about faith. “Bukra inshalla malesh. Tomorrow, God willing, never mind,” once the unofficial slogan of Egyptian life for a people whose patience had devolved over time into passivity and then paralysis. But that's all over now.
[CROWD SHOUTING] In 12 hours, this square will erupt in bloodshed, as protestors calling for Mubarak to be tried for his crimes, joined by some uniformed military and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, violate a late night curfew. Shots are fired. Eyewitnesses blame the military. The military blames the remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. The world first hears about the melee on Twitter. About a quarter of this nation of 80 million are online. Pretty impressive, considering that another quarter of the population is illiterate.
[VOICES IN BACKGROUND] We're here to probe the problem of where and how people get their information at a time when clarity has never been more crucial and news outlets more distrusted, having first denied the protests and defended Mubarak, then denounced Mubarak and celebrated the revolution. We start by asking people in the square about their news consumption.
[PEOPLE SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
FEMALE INTERPRETER: Al-Jazeera and Arabiya, these are two channels that I really trust because they supported us during an Alhurra channel, because they supported us during our revolution at the time that our own television let us down.
[MEN SPEAKING ARABIC]
FEMALE INTERPRETER: Unemployed.
[ARABIC VOICES] We just, we just graduated and we are not working.
[MEN SPEAKING ARABIC] I get it from the newspaper but it's not information that I trust.
[MEN SPEAKING ARABIC] And they don't give you the truth.
[INTERPRETER SPEAKS IN ARABIC/MAN RESPONDS]
FEMALE INTERPRETER: And I don't have money to get a computer or Internet access.
[MAN SPEAKING ARABIC] Engineer Essam Abdul Mawt -
[MAN SPEAKING ARABIC] The changes that were introduced to the Egyptian media were only in the appearance. There is no change in the way of thinking itself.
[MAN SPEAKING ARABIC] Why don't they employ some of the youth from the revolution in the television or bring in new blood?
[MAN SPEAKING ARABIC] Abrahim Zaghlul al Saeed. I'm a simple worker. I buy some shirts and I sell them back.
[MAN SPEAKING ARABIC] I don't know the Internet at all and I don't know this book thing that they talk about.
[MEN SPEAKING ARABIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: People besiege the microphone as if it were their only chance to be heard.
[PEOPLE SPEAKING ARABIC] One girl waves a picture of her brother, arrested when applying for government assistance after a fall. Egypt's mainstream media have rarely given voice to the voiceless. Instead, they lied – or lie.
FAISAL J. ABBAS: I've worked in a number of either state-owned or state-sponsored newspapers and television channels.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Faizal J. Abbas, London-based journalist, commentator and blogger, spoke to us before we left.
FAISAL J. ABBAS: You know, I can tell you from my own experience that the resemblance is amazing between the state of the country or the regime and the way it's reflected in journalism or in these media institutions. You have editors-in-chief who've lasted for 20 or 30 years. And, you know, when you go inside the organization you would find, you know, the exact same symptoms as a dictatorship. So anybody who takes the liberty to speak his own mind, you know, will be questioned and, you know, he will be — might be harassed and bullied, and those who praise the dictator or praise the editor-in-chief, those people will be promoted, and things like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that was then. Today, Egypt's state-run outlets declare that they've thrown off the yoke of the dictator and plead for a chance to redeem themselves. They claim that the revolution has erased the red lines around such taboo topics as religious minorities, torture, sexual harassment, Mubarak's personal life and the military. But human rights activists say one red line still remains, the one pertaining to the last remaining institution with unchecked power, the only one that matters, the military. In part, that's because the military stood with the protestors by refusing to defend Mubarak.
RAMY RAOOF: The majority, they do like the army and they don't want to believe that the army is a bad entity. And whatever the army is doing, people think that it's, it's for the public good, so if they're torturing, it's okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ramy Raoof works for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, where he collects and posts online testimony about the military's kidnapping and torture of demonstrators and videos of abuse.
RAMY RAOOF: But many international outlets like BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera, they did different documentaries about what we said online and they — and they gathered the videos that we posted online and built kind of report saying that their accusations for the — and blah-blah-blah. It's kind of embarrassing for a local newspaper that every international outlet is speaking about something that no one on the inside is speaking about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this is an interesting trajectory. The taboo against covering military abuses is so intense that it begins online, travels into the international press —
RAMY RAOOF: And stops there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and hits a roadblock. [LAUGHS]
RAMY RAOOF: Yeah, and it stops there. It doesn't come to local newspaper in Egypt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But he concedes that he stands at least a chance online. Online versions of mainstream papers are freer than the paper ones. English-language versions are freer still, online independent papers even more so. While mainstream newspapers hemorrhage readers, Internet journalism grows in influence, if not in revenue. Khaled al-Balshy edits the successful online paper al-Badil with two staffers, money from an inheritance and a host of volunteers. He used to run the paper version of al-Badil until it was closed down for financial reasons. He says political pressure was put on the paper's funders to withdraw. That seems likely. He's been sued by officials dozens of times, never been convicted.
INTERPRETER FOR KHALED AL-BALSHY: At the end of the day, I know how to write what I want without getting jailed. Unless they want to detain me, then that's a different issue. But to get imprisoned for something I wrote, no; I know how to deal with existing laws.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's quite an acrobatic feat. Egyptian defamation laws have landed journalists in jail for writing about the president's health or calling a politician's performance bad. Insulting the police can result in kidnap or torture. But Al-Balshy knows the ropes.
INTERPRETER FOR KHALED AL-BALSHY: We withhold the accused officer's name but we know his initials are so-and-so. That way I present the complete facts but he can't file a lawsuit against me. But ultimately I would have exposed him. This is part of their problem dealing with me because they weren't able to imprison me, so they decided to close my newspaper. This is part of the problem. Information is power.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gamal Eid is the head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo.
GAMAL EID: When people has the information, they can get the right decision, but without information, forget any right — decision. For example, 'til now, the document for the War of 1967, we don't know exactly what happened. We are talking about information about more than 40 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was a serious low point for the Egyptian press. During the first three days of the Six-Day War, the Egyptian media, including a respected announcer on state-run Nile TV, claimed victory over Israel when, in fact, the Egyptian Army had been crushed. Gamal Eid says that the government has yet to set the record straight.
GAMAL EID: And we have a right. It's our history. It's our country. But nobody can touch this d —document. And we're going to fight for our right for information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Magda Abu-Fadil is director of the Journalism Training Program at the American University of Beirut, and she says journalists in Egypt are in full mea culpa mode right now.
MAGDA ABU-FADIL: A famous talk show host who can claim that he was made famous during the Mubarak regime, for example, was interviewed recently in a newspaper, and he said, we're a defeated generation; we said half-truths or we lied. Now each one of them is trying to find its own identity and get its own act together. Now, where it all leads, you know, and we're kind of in a holding pattern and, and hoping for the best, but it's one heck of a ride.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "Heck" is a polite word for describing any ride on Cairo's potholed, gridlocked streets. We spent a lot of time in taxis. All the music you'll hear in this hour is recorded from their radios.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Next, we stop at Cairo University's Journalism School and the Middle East's once greatest, now most debased daily, Al-Ahram. This is On the Media.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you feel when you saw that infamous photograph of Mubarak doctored, walking in front of the National Delegation, rather than behind?
KHALED DAOUD: I was embarrassed to be an Egyptian journalist when I saw that picture. And, of course, I wasn't happy because everybody was making fun of me.