Independent press under siege?

Hazem Zohny, Friday 26 Nov 2010

The fate of Al Dustoor, until recently the most outspoken independent newspaper in the country is raising serious concerns that money could be as damaging to press freedom as government clampdowns

dustour protest

A Google search of the words “media crackdown Egypt” will spew out over 300,000 results – all too many of them appear as news items for the month of October, 2010.

This is not surprising. With the recent sacking of Egypt’s most notoriously outspoken editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Eissa, who was the editor and founder of Egypt’s Al-Dostour newspaper; the suspension of 12 satellite channels; and the cancellation of a number of recalcitrant television shows, a “media crackdown in Egypt” does appear to be in full-swing.

If one also considers the recent announcement regarding the increase of controls over mobile phone texting services, an even more compelling argument can be made.

Yet this apparent scheme against Egypt’s privately-owned and, till recently, quite exalted independent media, raises a disquieting thought: just how independent is Egypt’s independent media to begin with?

One the one hand, the advent of privately-owned papers and TV channels has enabled previously unheard of voices to raise once hushed issues and questions before the masses. The effects have bordered on revolutionary, arguably forcing even state-owned media to stray away from overly pro-government rhetoric in hopes of remaining competitive.

But there is another side to independent media – at least to the extent that it’s defined as being largely free from the influences of government and non-media corporations. Framed this way, the answer to the aforementioned question is not particularly inspiring.

According to Ayman Al-Sayyad, a media expert and editor of the monthly Weghat Nazar (Point of View), it may be argued that state-owned media is actually more independent in its set up compared to how the private media functions.

“I realize this is an unpopular conclusion,” says Al-Sayyad, before going on to offer a litany of thought-provoking points. Among his more convincing arguments is the fact that journalists are included in the board of directors of state-owned papers – a rare if non-existent condition in the private press. Also, unlike privately-owned papers, state-owned ones have no single owner, and as a result, theoretically, their reins are shared.

But more importantly, Al-Sayyad points to the lack of adherence to the laws governing independent media.

“The law stipulates that private media enterprises should be joint stock companies, with no single owner holding more than 10 per cent of the shares. But this doesn’t happen. Papers are almost wholly bought or owned by single individuals.” For example, Al-Masry Al-Youm is steered by Salah Diab and Al-Dustour is now controlled by Reda Edward.

Finally, the biggest worry surrounding the current state of the independent media is the lack of transparency.

An Al-Ahram visit to the Supreme Press Council proved it is no simple task finding out how many licensed private papers there are, let alone who owns them, what their financial statuses are like, or where they get their funding from. Consequently, corruption, suspicious associations, questionable funding sources and conflicting interests remain difficult to uncover. This veil of bureaucratic secrecy may hinder true independence.

Encapsulating this murkiness is the almost uniquely Egyptian practice of prominent journalists being registered in the Press Syndicate as working at, for instance, Al-Ahram, while in reality being editors at privately-owned papers. Al-Masry Al-Youm’s Magdy El Galad is one famous example.

“This does not mean that these journalists are up to no good,” says Al-Sayyad, “just that the issue of conflicting interests is not addressed under this system.”

Ultimately, while Egypt’s privately-owned media may rise above the sugar-coating tendencies of the state media in its news coverage, it is still a profit-driven enterprise that may largely cease to exist without support from advertisers. Hence, Al-Dostour’s Reda Edward’s ongoing justification for the firing Issa: the maverick’s harsh words were, allegedly, alienating advertisers.

But why the clampdown?

While the events of the past month may be individually explained away as no more than in-house differences between editors and mangers (or in the case of suspended satellite channels, as “moves to merely safeguard public well-being,” according to Information Minister Anas Al Fiqi), suspicions persist of a governmental agenda at work.

In an interview with the satellite channel Al Jazeera earlier this month, Maged Reda Botros, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party’s influential Policies Committee, “given how critical this time is for the regime (with the upcoming parliamentary elections), it would be very naïve of it to crack down on anybody at this time.”

But could the government be that naïve? The question was presented to one of the dozens of Al-Dostour’s journalists who were protesting at the Press Syndicate following Issa’s dismissal.

“No, the regime is not that naïve,” said one protesting journalist. “If anything, it is genius enough to make it look like these are all just internal problems, when of course it’s puppeteering everything from a distance.”

These words almost mimic those of Al-Shorouk’s Salama Ahmed Salama, who recently argued in his column that the regime is using its “invisible hand, which controls businessmen’s interests, to gag mouths and stifle pens.”

What this may all indicate is that, with the commercialization of Egypt’s media and its tentative independence from the dictates of the state, the stage has been set for a new situation wherein the government  would not need to engage in any salient “crackdown.” This can now be left to the private owners, who must bow to state pressures if they are to continue to prosper commercially in their other ventures.

Not a lost cause

But does this mean that private, independent media is a lost cause?

Hisham Qassem, democracy advocate and Al Masry Al Youm’s former publisher, thinks not.

“There is nothing worse than state-owned media,” he says. “It has been systematically destroyed over the past 60 years.”

Qassem firmly believes that the way forward is through the independent media, but stresses that this process is one of trial and error.

“You cannot undo in five or six years what has taken decades to destroy,” he says. Qassem is referring to the onset of independent newspapers, something marked by the advent of Al Masry Al Youm in 2004.

While privately-owned media have witnessed a boom since then, it is still a high-risk industry vulnerable to sudden governmental decisions that could see its precarious profitability collapse.

Qassem argues that “it’s because of this political atmosphere that the independent media attracts heavy-weight businessmen who can afford dropping 50 million dollars on a risky project.” It’s the vested and potentially conflicting interests that come with such colossal and single-handed investments that raise a concern.

Perhaps, if the experiment in an independent media of the past 6 years continues to assure smaller investors that this a viable enterprise free from whimsical government decisions, true independence can be achieved.

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