In Egypt, a media battle over the Duweiqa disaster

As the dust settles over the Duweiqa landslide that buried some 80 people in a suburb of Cairo on September 6, a media battle is being waged over who bears responsibility. While the independent media reports on the government's shortcomings, the government media has chosen to either ignore the tragedy or to blame the victims.
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Protests by the affected residents have been largely ignored by Egypt's official media. © Al-Badil

CAIRO, September 16, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Egyptian security officials have announced a new division in the country's media landscape. Report the incident as a simple "humanitarian disaster" and you are a friend; report what residents are saying, namely that the government has neglected the impending disaster for years and you are a "foe."

The Egyptian authorities made the call to restrict any unofficial media outlets from entering the badly damaged area in the Duweiqa district.

Residents maintain that hundreds are still buried under the rubble that came from at least eight boulders that fell from Al-Muqattam cliff. According to one source, some of the boulders were estimated to weigh about 70 tons.

Grave accusations

Al-Muqattam is a massive hill east of Cairo overlooking the Duweiqa district. It's pockmarked with residential areas that vary from shantytowns to posh estates.

Several official media outlets have acknowledged that there was a potential for a natural disaster on the Muqattam hill. But this mild criticism always goes hand in hand with the claim that the government had made new housing available elsewhere for the poorest residents.

Al-Akhbar, a pro-government newspaper, published a photo of houses it claimed were ready months before the disaster, saying that residents had simply not come forward to claim them.

Al-Ahram, the biggest official newspaper, even said in an editorial that the residents were partially responsible for the tragedy since they knew the area was at risk of a landslide.

But the story in the independent media is an entirely different one.

Duweiqa residents told the popular TV program Cairo Today on the Orbit satellite TV channel that officials in charge of registering citizens eligible for these housing units were demanding large bribes, while some acquired some of the houses for themselves.

Some units were sold for 70,000 Egyptian pounds or near $13,000, or rented out for $73 per month. An average salary for an Egyptian civil servant is just under $100 per month.

An even more extreme accusation came from the independent daily Al-Dostour. The newspaper reported that experts had linked the rockslide to a luxurious housing project being constructed above the Duweiqa area.

Mubarak's miracle solution

Al-Badil, another independent daily, published a comprehensive file about the area's history, and how poor people from various Egyptian areas had for decades been taking up residence in Duweiqa because housing in the capital had become prohibitively expensive.

Two days after the disaster, President Hosni Mubarak issued statements to Egyptian press and television outlets about the need for housing for those affected by the landslide. He promised not only to address the problems of the Duweiqa residents but to solve all of Egypt's housing problems once and for all.

The pro-government papers heralded the announcement as a success story amidst the tragedy.

The daily Al-Jumhouriya headlined, "Mubarak orders a solution for all haphazard houses in Egypt."

The same paper also reported that Abdel Azim Mussa Wazir, governor of Cairo promised housing for the affected within three days, the time needed to deliver water and electricity to the houses.

But in fact, sources say report that only 31 apartments were actually delivered.

Meanwhile, state TV has been accused of coldly ignoring the suffering of the people in Duweiqa.

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The head of Egyptian TV, Suzan Hasan, who built here career covering the First Lady's activities on child and health care issues, said in an interview that it was not possible to interrupt her broadcast to cover the disaster.

"We shouldn't interrupt regular programming to disturb people by broadcasting a simple piece of news," Hasan was quoted as saying.

Al-Masri Al-Yawm newspaper even quoted unnamed TV officials talking about the financial losses that would have been incurred by the two official state channels if drama series, and the accompanying commercials, had been interrupted to cover the Duweiqa disaster.

Coverage of protests was also severely limited.

After a rights group called for a candlelight vigil at Duweiqa the day after the landslide, only few people showed up. But an entire police division was on hand to handle the corps of journalists who had come to cover the vigil.

The security forces also restricted media coverage of a visit by a parliamentary delegation, allowing only journalists with special permits to enter the disaster area.

Alternative news sources

Area residents took advantage of the limited media presence by throwing rocks at the delegation. Women were screaming, and people could be heard banging on pots in protest.

But this scene never made to the Egyptian TV screens. Instead, state TV ran a report of a visit by President Mubarak's son to a temporary camp and a hospital.

The official censorship led many Egyptians to look for their news elsewhere. Al-Jazeera's coverage of the disaster was the most viewed news source online immediately after the disaster.

Bloggers were publishing photos and testimony from the disaster area, while activists called for donations on Facebook and on various online religious forums. Other online activists were demanding the resignation of the Cairo governor.

The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper reported that rather than dealing with the issue of housing the Duweiqa victims, President Mubarak was occupied elsewhere, "opening a number of development projects in the Delta region."

Several Egyptian human rights organizations drafted a joint statement about the media blackout over Duweiqa.

"By banning the independent media and others from the area, the Egyptian public has been led to believe that the facts and truth will be buried along with the victims' bodies," the statement read.