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Owners and editors: new relationship needed

A new era of the press in Egypt could be at hand if some basic rules are laid down to govern the relation between owners and editors

Waheed Abdel-Meguid , Friday 26 Nov 2010
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Views: 1512

The crisis at Al-Dostour has cast a spotlight on the relationship between newspaper ownership and editorial freedom. Though not a new issue, this time it is being raised in the midst of a severe crisis that occurred only a few weeks after the ownership of the paper switched hands and the new owners subsequently dismissed Ibrahim Eissa, the paper’s editor-in-chief — the man who established and shaped the editorial policy for which Al-Dostour is so well known. The crisis forces the question of how to regulate the still youthful private press established under Law 96/1996, of which Al-Dostour is one of the earliest examples. And it is closely connected to a phenomenon that we will surely see more of in different forms in the near future: the buying and selling of private papers among businessmen and entrepreneurs at a time when their political and media presence is on the rise. The Press Syndicate board was right to declare in a statement issued after a meeting convened to discuss the crisis on 7 October that it would make it a priority to establish rules governing the relationship between owners of the private press and their editorial boards. But aspirations for such rules should be a priority for the state and wider society, not only the Press Syndicate, especially in an era when money has enormous power and some of those who have it are seeking to expand their clout and power through the purchase of organs of influence and control — the media. It is therefore necessary to devise acceptable, enforceable codes for the regulation of the private press. This is impossible unless proposals for regulation are grounded in reality and consist of ideas that can actually be implemented, rather than slogans about the iron-clad separation between press owners and editorial policy. Putting this oft-repeated slogan into practice could end up making press ownership meaningless, leading to a situation in which newspaper owners fund activities that are owned, in effect, by someone else. This notion is unrealistic. Instead, we need to discuss the practical principles underlying the regulation of private papers and conduct a public debate on the topic. Among the principles that should be considered and discussed are transparency in the establishment of newspapers, the institutionalisation of papers through the establishment of real boards and general assemblies, and amendments to the conscience clause of the press law to make it more specific. Thus far the creation of private newspapers has lacked adequate transparency. Virtually no one knows who owns each newspaper today, even though, by law, private papers must be issued by joint-stock companies that can have no less than 10 founders and no single founder may own more than 10 per cent of the shares. The crisis at Al-Dostour illustrated how the law is circumvented, exposing the previously hidden workings of the process. The former chair of the Dostor board brought in purely formal investors, none of whom owned even one share in the company, according to Shadi Eissa, the former editorial secretary, who frankly stated that the shares registered in his name (10 per cent of the total shares in the company) in 1998 were not real. His formal ownership was created by a special power of attorney delegated by him to the real, sole owner, Essam Ismail Fahmi. Under the terms of the power of attorney, Fahmi had the right to sell his and others’ shares at any time. It’s clear that Fahmy did the same thing with other shareholders, who have said that they all gave him the right to sell his own and others’ shares in the company. In effect, he owned all the company’s shares. The establishment of newspapers must be done in a fully transparent manner. This can be accomplished with the introduction of a legal amendment that obliges founders to reveal their names and share contributions in a public announcement in more than one paper. This announcement should be a condition for licensing. In addition, private newspapers need to be institutions rather than personal fiefdoms. The first step towards this goal could be the formation of elected boards that give journalists, administrators or workers, and owners one-third of the seats on the board. The general assembly of the company that issues the paper can be constituted in the same way. If the law gives the general assembly adequate oversight over performance and accountability, the situation in private papers that led to the Dostor crisis will be different. Regulation would likely limit businessmen who have no connection to the media —except using it to serve their not always legitimate interests — from buying or establishing papers. If similar regulations are introduced for television channels, we may be able to protect the media from the onslaught of businessmen who see no difference between buying a paper, making good on a business opportunity, or scoring a prime piece of real estate. If transparency and institutionalisation are accompanied by compliance with the conscience clause of Article 13 of Law 96/1996, this could usher in a new era in the history of the Egyptian press. Making the clause effective, however, requires two things. First, it should be amended to require newspaper owners and editors to clearly specify in their contracts editorial policies that will not be subject to interference from management. The conscience clause is legally meaningless unless the contract elaborates the editorial policy, a change of which would lead the journalist to feel that continuing in his job conflicts with his conscience and professionalism. Secondly, journalists — all journalists — must fulfil their duty towards the conscience clause as well, if they are to have any credibility when they ask management to do so. Doing this requires journalists to respect professional codes and abstain from undue flattery or smears to achieve private gain. If these conditions are met it will be possible and feasible to regulate the relationship between owners and editors.

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