When a group of journalists with a passion for independent media began to work for The Egypt Independent four years ago, none of them realized that the great administration saw what they printed as a mouthpiece for the interests of its owner and not as independent press.
"It seems like they saw us as a facade for an owner of capital or a pulpit offering a source for status and power." This is how Linah Attallah, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, summarized the decision of the administration at Al-Masry Al-Youm to close the publication after less than four years since the launch of its online English-language paper.
Several months ago the administration also closed Siyasi magazine. Both closures were attributed to economic difficulties experienced by Egypt and a shortage of resources, as well as the current global trend away from print journalism. Journalists and those who follow media feel that the reasons for these closures are first and foremost political, and believe that it this represents a threat to the future of Egyptian press after a revolution was waged for the sake of freedom of speech.
"Our trite generation will be the one to topple your media regime," "How poor managerial skills destroyed a leading independent voice," "A third way: Stuck between the state and the corporate sector," "The burdensome profession: Job security, financial problems, and dangers in the field plague journalists." It is with these headlines that journalists from the paper bid farewell to its readers in its 50th and final issue on April 25, 2013, which was not allowed to be published by the administration. The team had no choice but to publish it on the internet in an issue that seemed like a revolution against the status quo of modern media. Attallah says: "All we dreamed of was to be free journalists, who independently run our own publication, free of any political or economic balances that may threaten our work in the free press. This is, of course, what displeased the administration." Given the state's control over national papers, the private — or "independent" — press has in turn become threatened in Egypt, where the short experiment has shown that the media has become a playground for businessmen and power-hungry political parties waging media campaigns against one another.
Press as "prestige"
"There is no such thing as independent press in Egypt. What we see is private press that we hoped would be able to gain more independence compared to national press," says Risha Abdullah, a professor of media at the American University in Cairo (AUC). "This is exactly like the national press, controlled by a group of businessmen who see the press not as a profitable investment venture but as a platform that serves their own business needs and grants them a form of prestige, power or status. If the editorial team were to refuse this, the owner would intervene in different ways and to varying degrees, as was the case with The Egypt Independent. It is the story of journalists who tried to carry out their work with professionalism and independence, to the annoyance of the administration, since what they were writing in certain cases began to conflict with either the political or economic interests of the owner.
The most stifling confrontations between the Al-Masry Al-Youm administration and the editorial team of the English publication resulted from the interference of the administration in banning the article by American writer Robert Serpinberg — wherein he criticized the ruling military council at the time in December 2011 — through issuing more than 20,000 copies of the paper. Magdy al-Galad, editor-in-chief at the time, wrote that the article sought "to serve Western plans and goals," repeating the same words that the Egyptian regime had grown accustomed to saying to ban or distort any act it saw as contrary to its interests. The team of journalists at the time waged a campaign against internal censorship by the administration, engaging in a battle followed by newspapers and social networking sites. According to Attallah, after this the team was able to secure complete independence from the "mother management," changing the name of the publication from The English Edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm to The Egypt Independent.
According to Abdel Moneim Said, chairman of the Al-Masry Al-Youm administrative council (delegated by the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a powerful figure during Mubarak's days), the issue was depicted in the media as the institution deciding to shutter The Egypt Independent based on a "group of tight-fisted capitalists or a group of administrators led by faloul [remnants of the former regime]. This group was held largely accountable for the "deceit" and "lies." Said reaffirmed that the matter is economic at its base and was caused by the failure of a group of journalists to write material that would draw in readers, which would in turn have increased the number of shares and sales.
Said wrote: "In all that was published, no one mentioned the distribution size of the newspaper (an average of 500 copies), the size of its partnerships (70 partners) or its debts (500 million Egyptian pounds or $71.6 million) that it put the institution in after only seven months since its issuance."
"Was the administration taken completely by surprise that the paper is not viable and does not produce enough profit? When it was first beginning the venture, did it conduct a feasibility study to determine whether the project would be feasible and capable of continuing?” he added.
“Following the administration's failure, is it the journalist's responsibility to lay out a successful economic plan to increase sales?" mused Attallah. Those following the media issue in Egypt feel that the press, both governmental and private, is the victim of a series of violations that threaten the independence of journalistic work, varying between censorship, banning [articles], sequestration, assaulting, threatening and taking journalists to court.
A record number of freedom of the press violations
According to the annual report issued by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information last week, despite promises by President Mohammed Morsi to protect freedom of the press and the media if he were elected, his assumption of power last June — according to the article — was but the end of one era and the beginning of another of restricting freedom of expression and media freedoms. The network tallied at least 24 violations in the first 100 days of the first elected president in modern Egyptian history. This constitutes a record number in Egyptian history. Observers feel that this sheds light on the new president's intention to stifle any opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he has belonged as an ideology and an organization for the past 30 years.
Among the violations registered by the report was the sequestration of the Aug. 11 issue of the private El-Dostour newspaper, being accused of "inciting sectarian strife, offending the president of the republic, and fomenting chaos in society." Mid-October of last year (2012), the editor-in-chief of the national El-Akhbar newspaper issued an oral decision to ban the writer Abla al-Roweini from writing her daily column that had been running for more than four years. The following day they blocked her article "The King is Naked," which criticized the hegemony the Muslim Brotherhood and the Shura Council maintain over the national paper, as part of continual attempts to constrain her articles in El-Akhbar.
The editor-in-chief of El-Dostour, Islam Afifi, faced being put on trial and detained last August as part of allegations that he had insulted the president of the republic and published fallacious news, despite the absence of conditions for this detention and also despite the fact that it was a publication case. The public prosecutor issued his decision to transfer Afifi to the criminal court on charges of insulting the president and printing fallacious news after the conclusion of investigations, as well as putting his name on the no-fly list. After immense pressure exerted by civil society, the president of the republic issued a decision to cease detention during cases related to publication, and accordingly the public prosecutor moved to release Islam Afifi.
In December 2012, the public prosecutor ordered that an inquiry be opened with media personality Ibrahim Issa in a report presented by Mamdouh Ismael, the appeals lawyer and former member of the dissolved People's Assembly. In the same month, the presidency of the republic issued a claim to the public prosecutor against journalist Alaa al-Shafii and editor-in-chief of El-Youm El-Sabia Khalid Salah because of an article by the former printed in the pages of the newspaper under the title "Morsi's Marriage to Fouada Battel," where she criticized the violence used by the Muslim Brotherhood at the presidential palace which resulted in the killing of peaceful demonstrators and the injury and detainment of a number of activists. Her article also criticized the president's speech on the following day, feeling that it defended acts of violence carried out by the Brotherhood.
Religion as a weapon
"The current regime practices the same policies of the former regime in silencing [its critics], however in a more ferocious manner. They now utilize religion as a weapon," said Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
"The real problem is found in the nature of the ruling regime and the way it perceives the function of the press and media as a mere mouthpiece for itself," he added.
"After two years of uprisings in the region, we still see escalating efforts from the ruling governments to silence the media. This sheds light on the need for a wake-up call in defending and protecting independent press."
According to Eid, the constitution issued after the revolution by the Shura Council is replete with loopholes that minimize the number of press freedoms and restrict the work of journalists. Article 215, for example, replaces the Supreme Press Council, which is an elected authority made up of journalists, with the National Media Council, the members of which are appointed by the government. This council assumes "the laying out of controls and protective standards with the commitment of different media outlets to the origins and ethics of the profession," and, "the protection of the values and customs of society." This is similar to granting the new governmental authority the power to control media and news coverage. Article 48 permits courts to close the facilities of media outlets if the judiciary were to find a worker within the concerned outlet who has disrespected the conditions of this article, including "respect for the private life of citizens and the requirements of national security." These are sweeping words that may be used by the regime to threaten whatever it might deem inappropriate.
Attallah says: "The Minister of Media says that we live with unprecedented freedom of media, while what we are seeing is not freedom of expression. What we are seeing is a group of journalists who decided to defy the authorities and defend the space for expression that they took by force before and after the revolution. In order to talk about the freedom of the press, there must be a political will to protect journalists pursuant to the constitution, which is precisely the opposite of what the state is doing. This is precisely as it was in Mubarak's era, as the journalists and media personalities of today are carrying out the profession knowing that there is no law protecting them or a constitution to rely on, as well as the price that may have to be paid for their words."
Attallah feels that journalists in Egypt are facing a complete system of dangers making their work a constant threat. They face bodily dangers, times of financial instability and accusations of defamation, just as they lack the resources and support needed to carry out serious investigative journalism. "What we have come to be in dire need of is free and independent press owned by journalists that serves the people. The state–business duality sacrifices the press followed by the people. It is also important that journalists become shareholders in the newspaper in order to become a part of the decision-making process."
The above article was translated from Assafir al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.