Coptic issues as tackled in the Egyptian media came under discussion at a recent seminar at the Maat Centre for Studies on Human Rights held in cooperation with the One World Association and the Human Development Association.
A pet term used by the media when tackling Coptic issues is that of “national unity”, commonly used to denote the age-old relationship between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts. George Ishaq, a founder of the political opposition movement Kifaya, started off by saying it was impossible to speak of national unity in the absence of equal rights and justice. He claimed justice was selectively abused by the security apparatus to humiliate Copts.Government-dictated mediaTo make matters worse, Ishaq said, the State-owned media presented such issues from a government standpoint and not from the people’s perspective. Fanatical ideas broadcast on some satellite channels only helped stimulate heated tensions between Christians and Muslims, he added.
As was often the case in closed, tyrannical communities with a religious divide, the Egyptian covering of sectarian events in the media was usually biased. Such was the opinion voiced by Mohamed al-Sayed al-Saïd, the editor of the Cairo independent, liberal, daily Al-Badeel. Moreover, Saïd held the state responsible for the increase in sectarian problems and asked for journalism to be freed from political control. He also called for the development of the ethical side of the profession in support of a State governed by justice, law and human rights.A culture of toleranceAccording to Essam Abdullah, professor of literature at Ain-Shams University, Egypt seemed to evade the learning curve experienced by other Arab countries. Abdullah, who recently returned from the United Arab Emirates, mentioned a relaxed seminar he had attended in Abu-Dhabi on the role played by Sheikh Khalifa in spreading a culture of tolerance. Present were priests of different sects who were allowed to build churches in the country without interference. Sheikh Zayed of Dubai himself donated a piece of land on which to build an Orthodox church. Abdullah stressed that the 35-year old Coptic file, in which same problems kept repeating themselves, was the biggest evidence of the failure of the media and the State in managing Coptic issues.Media work-upSatellite channels came under fire for airing talk shows which present both Muslim and Christian fanatics with the aim of gaining viewers. Mohamed Salah, Cairo bureau manager of the London-based paper Al-Hayat, said this was flying in the face of the compelling need for media objectivity and neutrality, and was destabilising security in Egypt. On the other hand, Salah added, electronic sites were beyond judgement because they involved personal opinion, even though they were showing signs of getting out of hand.
The consultant editor of Al-Karama, Amin Iskandar, criticised the media habit of identifying intellectuals according to their religion and using terms such as ‘the Coptic thinker so-and-so’, pointing out that it served no constructive purpose. He also criticised the minister of labour for identifying ‘Christian investors’, adding that investment had nothing to do with religion and rights in a nationalised state.Ideal solutionThe seminar recommended establishing centres for teaching and spreading a culture of tolerance, in addition to supporting human rights organisations and training young journalists to deal with sensitive issues in an objective manner. The seminar asked for the organisation of a national council for citizenship to include non-governmental personalities as an ideal solution to deal with the decades-old Coptic file that has so far proved an impossible task for the government.