As chaos ensued on streets across Egypt this week, and speculation surrounding the whereabouts of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and his closest Islamist allies intensified, the country's national newspaper splashed an expose across its front page.
"The public prosecutor ordered the detention of Morsi for 15 days," Monday's Al-Ahram headline read in bold red print, followed by a series of scandalous subtitles claiming the detention is linked to a 2011 prison break. It also alleged the ex-president is suspected of espionage after calling U.S. Ambassador Anne Peterson from the wiretapped phone of Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man responsible for his political demise.
Both sides vehemently deny the report. That same morning, the court summoned Al-Ahram editor-in-chief Abdel-Nasser Salama for questioning, on the basis that news of Morsi's imprisonment is untrue and unsubstantiated. In a statement on Monday, the prosecutor warned the media that those who publish false reports will face charges. IkhwanWeb, the Muslim Brotherhood's online newspaper, called the report "utter lies," adding that claims of spying are meant to intimidate those protesting "in support of the return of legitimacy."
Misinformation is rife -- a dangerous thing in the Twitter era. Opponents of politician and Nobel peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei had already taken to the streets in outrage earlier this month after state news reported the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog was selected as interim prime minister. The news was picked up by the international press and spread quickly over social media. The report was then denied some hours later.
Nearly three weeks after a popular uprising by millions of Egyptians to remove Morsi prompted military intervention, violent protests continue in locations across the country, while private and state-owned media battle in words and accusations. It is the latest chapter in Egypt's tumultuous transition, in which opposing camps are feuding in newspaper pages over everything from Morsi's legitimacy, to whether or not the events that transpired constitute a military coup.
"If you look back at the history of Egyptian media, there are many instances where page editors try to break from the state's message and it really shakes things up every time that happens," said Adel Iskandar, an Arab media scholar at Georgetown University and author of the book Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution . "In this peculiar case, you've got a remnant of the Morsi regime still in place and trying to use whatever authority he has left to get a message out."
When Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, tales of oppression were vented through narratives in Egypt's print and television media. Many had hoped that the Morsi government would encourage a more balanced discourse -- but those hopes were quickly shattered.
In August, the Islamist-dominated Upper House of Parliament, known as the Shura Council, named 50 new editors for the country's state-run newspapers, among them, many with loyalties to the ruling Islamist party. The move preceded a number of controversial decrees, including a declaration by Morsi granting himself judicial immunity, and the ratification of a new constitution in late December, despite the absence of any secular groups and religious minorities on the drafting committee.