By Amira Elmasry (*) –
In the past month, Coptic websites have covered the case of a Christian girl who was found hanged inside a taxi near the village of Deir El-Barsha, in Malwi, Minya Governorate. It was later revealed that she was the sister of two priests: Fr. Timothy Rashid, the vicar of the diocese, and Fr. Luke Rashid, the priest of the Al-Rawda Church in Malwi.
A search in more general news sites shows that no details of the incident have been published, even though they routinely publish many incidents, including those that are less severe and brutal. In fact, the incident was not even referred to, despite the fact that the sectarian aspect seems to be a remote possibility, since the car owner is also a Christian, according to what was circulated on to Coptic sites. Therefore, it could have been treated as an incident that is unrelated to sectarian incidents–which news sites usually try to distance themselves from, in line with the State-imposed policy, which we might justifiably call “caution in dealing with this type of issue.”
Why has this recent incident not been published on news sites?
This question cannot be answered without considering the long history of how media have dealt with Coptic issues. When you search for “Coptic issues” on a search engine, you will find several headlines, including, for example, “The murder of a Copt in an altercation”, “Disappearance of a Coptic girl”, “A demonstration to build a church,” but all of them are news that are only circulated by sites with a Coptic character, or can also be addressed through social media, but without finding any traces on other, more general, news sites.
To understand the answer or approach it, we can refer to the book “Coptic Magazines” by researcher and journalist Robert Al-Fares. In this book, he discusses the development of the emergence of Coptic TV channels and newspapers. The book, published in 2021, talks about the 1990s and, according to the writer, the so-called revolution of “Coptic websites and TV channels” emerged, but this revolution was far from political in nature and closer to technological. In the late 1990s, Egypt launched a satellite for broadcasting, allowing private channels to broadcast through it without restrictions related to the need to broadcast from the Media Production City. This was the period when the Internet has been become widely available at homes. A number of Coptic websites were launched, and the first Coptic TV channel specialized in Christian affairs was launched, broadcasting from Sweden, namely Sat-7 . In 2003, Agape channel was launched, followed by CTV channel in 2007.
These sites, which spread more widely after that, up to the website of the newspaper Watani (which was originally published in print by Anton Sidhom in 1958 and is still published today), and also the website of the Copts United, convey news of the Copts – who are estimated at 15 million – and what they are exposed to daily. From a broader perspective, these news sites were created due to the neglect of Coptic news in Egyptian media. This neglect can be described as deliberate, as evidenced by the recent incident mentioned above, that was not reported in any news site or newspaper, despite its gruesome details that would normally require follow-up. To further confirm this: if the matter had been reversed, and that girl had been Muslim, the media would have covered the incident with continuous follow-up, as is the case in the incidents sections of all newspapers and news sites.
Returning to Al-Fares; he says in his book that there are 76 Coptic magazines, newspapers, and publications in Egypt. They have varied between reformist, political, literary, social, women’s, and children’s illustrated magazines. They are all united by the fact that they are concerned with Christian affairs and are published by Coptic owners and contributors.
Control of the security narrative
We can say that sectarian violence in Egypt began in the early 1970s and increased by the late 1990s. This was accompanied by even more neglect of these violations.
With neglect came the circumvention of the narrative. When media deal with an issue related to Copts, they are circumvented and become evasive in search of justifications, so that the narrative that is circulated in the end is the one of the State Security agencies (“Security”), which do not see a need for discussing these issues by the media. It is the same agencies that welcome the publication of news of the type of drug-seizures in security campaigns, but they stand against publishing about the slaughter of a girl inside a car in mysterious circumstances, just because she is Christian.
The media and Security in Egypt are two sides of the same coin. This is the view-angle that can clarify the picture a lot. The media follows the instructions of the security agencies, which consider that covering the news of 15 million citizens to be insignificant or undesirable. For example, in 2010, a major incident took place in Nag Hammadi, where three gunmen opened fire on Coptic worshippers after they left the church on the eve of the Christmas celebrations. The media tried to justify the sectarian crime, by claiming that it was carried out in revenge for the rape of a Muslim girl by one of the churchgoers, thus diverting attention to another crime.
In addition to the manipulation of the narrative, there is a refusal from the outset to engage with it. According to a number of journalists dealing with Coptic affairs, they told the Coptic Solidarity that, in many cases, they become aware of incidents occuring for Copts, in different cities and governorates, which do not necessarily have a sectarian dimension. However, when they contact media to report them, the typical response from the editors/supervisors is usually that there are no instructions from Security to publish.
Those remarks provide an answer, there is a clear intention to ignore or circumvent Coptic news, and also make clear that the media in Egypt is in a major crisis; one of the main features of which is its submission to Security, which determine the issues media can address. Security do not see any importance to Coptic issues and do not see that their coverage could represent a small step in achieving citizenship. Here lies the bigger crisis: as citizens have come to search in social media sites for information that cannot be obtained from national media platforms. It is a double-edged sword, as the use of social media could uncover hidden information, but it can also convey unfounded rumors. It is a crisis that could have been avoided if Security had allowed the media from the outset to fairly represent the categories of society and talk about everyone’s problems, so that the media platforms would become the main source of accurate information.
Some researchers contend that there are a few news sites that do not subject themselves to instructions from Security, but still prefer to stay away the areas dealing with Copts, for fear of clashing with Security. This is also associated with the increasing Security grip on Copts, with the repeated arrests of some of them for voicing opinions or social media posts, and the filing of charges of “contempt of religion or stirring up sedition in society.” In an earlier article, we discussed the unwillingness of Security to make public the facts surrounding the disappearance of Christian women and the instigators of those incidents, because they “do not wish to.” This answer is also explained by the pattern of dealing with this “file” (covering Coptic news in the media) as well, because the matter as a whole is dealt with as only a security file, not a file related to citizenship.
On the other hand, Coptic news sites face accusations of “fanning sectarianism.” However, there is a clear difference between reporting the real news and trying to use them to incite or inflame general feelings. In fact, it is those who make such accusations who are the ones causing the incitement. When Security entrap Copts and deliberately ignore their news, and further impose this on the media, then there is no way to follow Coptic news except through those (Coptic) sites, or social media pages, which Security do not have full control or supervision over, as they do over media institutions.
Perhaps this predicament could be avoided from the outset by creating an atmosphere of transparency, free from fear, that recognizes the nation’s citizens, both Muslims and Christians, on equal footing. This would help to avoid falling into a cycle with unfortunate consequences.
(*) Journalist and researcher