ISTANBUL — A war of words seems to be brewing between Egypt’s top state newspaper Al Ahram and The New York Times.
On Oct. 9, Al Ahram published a story that mistranslated portions of an earlier Times article by Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick about Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s speech at the U.N. in late September. While the Times’ article characterized Sissi’s reception as “amused silence,” Al Ahram distorted much of the Times’ coverage to paint a much rosier picture of the leader.
According to the Egyptian newspaper, the Times said Sissi’s presence at the U.N. had convinced people that former President Mohammed Morsi’s military ouster last year was not a coup at all, but rather a revolution. While the Times noted the “strength of the cult of personality” around Sissi, Al Ahram said the Times detailed instead Sissi’s strength of personality.
The Times was quick to publish a scathing response.
“There is no such thing as bad press for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,” the Times wrote on Oct. 15, slamming Al Ahram’s article. “At least not if it is translated by Al Ahram, Egypt’s flagship state newspaper.”
The Times’ response presented segments of its initial story and the mistranslated version side-by-side.
On Friday, Al Ahram’s English-language website reported that it had apologized for the mistranslation. But its report states that Al Ahram only takes the blame for not checking the original Times article, attributing the mistranslation instead to the Middle East News Agency, whose services the paper says it will no longer use. Al Ahram said the mistake is upsetting because it has been working to restore its credibility.
The report on the “apology” concludes:
Sadly, apologies for mistakes have been lacking in Egyptian journalism for a great many years. In issuing this apology Al-Ahram not only corrects a mistake, but also hopes to set an example in restoring the traditions of editorial responsibility to Egyptian journalism in general.
But the original Arabic statement, paraphrased in its English report, does not actually offer an apology, and takes a much different tone, accusing Kirkpatrick of being a terrorist sympathizer.
According to a HuffPost translation, the statement reads, “It is known that that The New York Times reporter refuses the political course in Egypt since June 30,” in reference to the June 30 coup that deposed Egypt’s first freely elected president. “And [Kirkpatrick] fervently defends the terrorist organization and always promotes the idea that there is oppression of freedoms in the country, and questions the public will that removed the [Muslim] Brotherhood from power.”
The New York Times told HuffPost that it had no comment beyond its response in print to the initial mistranslation.
The Egyptian press, especially state-run and -influenced outlets, has long been criticized as a propaganda tool. And since Sissi’s rise to power, foreign and local journalists have been intimidated and detained for publishing journalism deemed unflattering to the Egyptian government.
Among them, an Al Jazeera crew that includes an Egyptian, an Australian and a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen has been in prison since December on seven- to 10-year jail terms resulting from charges of spreading false news and aiding a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, Al Ahram and similar media outlets have published unsubstantiated allegations claiming that foreign journalists have been hired to destabilize the state. And such outlets have also failed to cover important events that could put the government in an unfavorable light, such as the deaths of protesters at the hands of security forces.
One prominent example of dubious journalistic practice is the infamous doctored photo published by Al Ahram in 2010, which showed then-President Hosni Mubarak proudly leading a group of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, down a red carpet. In the original photo, Mubarak was in the back.
The newspaper defended its manipulation, saying the doctored photo gave the “true expression of the prominent stance of President Mubarak.”
More recently, in August 2013, Al Ahram ran a front-page story written by the paper’s editor-in-chief accusing the head of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is now banned in Egypt) with collaborating with then-U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson to bring down the government. The article also said that part of her plan involved releasing Gazan militants into Egypt.
“Your article’s claim that I personally am involved in a conspiracy to divide and destabilize Egypt is absolutely absurd and dangerous,” Patterson responded in a letter published on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s website. “This article isn’t bad journalism; it isn’t journalism at all. It is fiction, serving only to deliberately misinform the Egyptian public.”
Michael Calderone contributed reporting from New York.