CAIRO (Reuters) - During Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule, the state often shaped media coverage to make him appear flawless, hauling in editors who did not fall into line.
After next week's presidential election, which former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win, authorities may not have to impose glowing reviews of his performance.
Many journalists now eagerly engage in self-censorship.
It’s a far cry from the free press many hoped for after the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011.
"The idea of a neutral press is a myth that does not exist and will not exist anywhere in the world. We feel that Egypt is facing danger and we will perform our duties to protect the country," said Samir El Sayid, an editor at state-run Al-Ahram, Egypt’s most well-known newspaper.
"I have a sense of belonging to Egypt and will do what is appropriate to serve its interests."
Many journalists from state and private media have hailed Sisi as the country's saviour since he ousted President Mohamed Mursi last year and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Security forces have killed hundreds and thrown thousands in jail.
Instead of taking an even-handed approach to the political struggle that unfolded after Mursi's overthrow, the media has opened its own front against the Islamists, supporting the government view that they are terrorists.
Like the army-backed administration and its wealthy supporters Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, many Egyptian journalists view the Brotherhood as an existential threat, demonising the group in the name of stability.
Neither state nor private media question official assertions that the Brotherhood is a terrorist group, even though the authorities have not presented compelling evidence that it was behind bombings and shootings that have killed hundreds of police and soldiers since Mursi was toppled.
Rather than using press conferences to ask tough questions about allegations of human rights abuses, some journalists voluntarily pledge their backing for the Interior Ministry.
Graphic images of the aftermath of militant attacks on security forces are on front pages of newspapers on an almost daily basis, accompanied by praise for Sisi, who served as military intelligence chief under Mubarak.
Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a moderate Islamist who came fourth in Egypt's 2012 presidential election, described pro-army television stations as “black media”.
He said they aimed to brainwash Egyptians into thinking that a crackdown on political opposition was part of “a war on terror”.
Like many other Egyptians, journalists accused Mursi of usurping power, imposing the Brotherhood's view of Islam and mismanaging the economy during his year in office, allegations he denies.
The Islamist media was shut down almost immediately after the army takeover and it has not reopened.
“I tried at the beginning of their (the Mursi government's) year in power to be a bit balanced. I tried but I can tell you I was not successful… I was not balanced, definitely. How can I be balanced with a terrorist regime?” asked Lamees al-Hadidi, who hosts one of Egypt's most popular television talk shows.
“I decided I don’t want to live under this regime. I am the opposition and I decided to take the stance of the opposition."
Hadidi defended the Egyptian media, which treats criticism from allies and foes alike as a conspiracy to undermine the country.
She argued that some American television channels have an agenda and do not come under the same scrutiny, citing coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the mood in the United States after the Sept. 11 al Qaeda attacks.
Sisi promised that a political road map he announced after overthrowing Mursi would lead to democracy.
But his comments suggest he believes journalists should forget about holding the state to account, at least for now, and serve their country.
“We need to form, in the conscience of citizens, the idea that Egypt is the big family that everyone must protect. The nation at this time needs the media to work on this because if Egypt falls it will not come back,” online news website Sada Albalad quoted Sisi as saying at a meeting.
He does not need to stress the point, it seems.
In a televised session between Sisi and local journalists, one stood up and urged Egypt to have a law regulating the media.
"It should not be left to the conscience of the people," she said.
Journalists say authorities never force them to change copy or broadcasts. But there seem to be red lines that can't be crossed.
DISSENT WITH A PRICE
A number of Egyptian anchors and commentators who criticised the army no longer appear in the media, though it is not clear why. None responded to Reuters requests for interviews.
Hadidi says on occasions when she presented a more balanced view, she faced a backlash from the public and in some cases was at risk of prosecution.
“Many times media follows the mainstream, which is wrong. We get pressured. I am worried I will be a lonely voice as there are many extreme voices and populism,” Hadidi said.
“I’m worried about these extreme voices that hail everything the authorities say, it’s terrifying.”
Egypt has put three Al Jazeera journalists on trial on charges of aiding members of a "terrorist organisation". Human rights groups say the case shows the authorities are trampling on freedom of expression.
Sticking to the official line is still the safest bet, three years after hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested in Cairo's Tahrir Square and helped bring down Mubarak.
Some go beyond it.
In a popular private newspaper, Almasry Alyoum, columnist Ghada Sherif suggested Egyptians should do anything for the man expected to be their new leader.
“He really doesn’t have to give orders. It is enough for him to wink or even flutter his eyelashes and he will find us all in his service,” wrote Sherif.
"If he wants us as concubines we won't be out of reach."
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood)