In Egypt, new newspapers and old problems

Citizens need good journalism to explain confusing times, but many Egyptians don't trust their media

CAIRO, EGYPT — Egyptian newsstands today offer a lively range of options, including three government-owned papers, papers affiliated with political parties, and several privately-owned papers, some of which sprung up since the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Since only 30 percent of Egyptians have access to the Internet, according to 2011 figures, newspapers, along with television and radio, are likely to continue playing a key role in Egyptian media for years.

Although overt government censorship was ousted along with Mubarak, Egypt’s burgeoning independent press is facing a new and more complex set of challenges. A lack of government transparency coupled with questions about the political and business interests controlling privately owned newspapers are adding to public skepticism of the mainstream press at the precise moment journalists are needed to cover the country’s difficult, delicate transition from military to civilian rule.

“We are moving from state ownership to oligarch ownership,” Hisham Kassem, a veteran of the independent press here, said in an interview in his apartment steps from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. “In Egypt, the newspaper is owned by an individual who has nothing to do with the profession, but is there for the influence.”

Kassem, who in the 1990s founded the independent but now-defunct Cairo Times and later published the pioneering independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, is in the midst of launching a new cross-platform media company called Algomhouria Algadida (which translates as “The New Republic,” though it has no relation to the Washington, DC-based magazine, he said).

However, Kassem’s project remains, for the moment, in a holding pattern while he waits for jumpy investors to feel assured that the political situation in Egypt has stabilized. He recently had cable laid in an empty newsroom that he hopes will, by the end of the year, produce high-quality content for a newspaper, website, television station, and radio station.

Kassem says he plans to establish total editorial independence by insuring that no one investor will control more than 10 percent of the company.

This business model is an attempt to confront an existing problem of so-called “anchor investors,” usually business figures, often with connections to the old regime, who own controlling stakes in key news organizations. According to a recent report produced for the Ford Foundation, these investors treat the mainstream media “as pseudo-empires, fundamentally influencing public opinion.”

“In post-uprising Egypt, wealth is still owned by remnants of the old regime, and many of those individuals control an important share of the media market,” the report states. Even the owner of the respected Al-Masry Al-Youm is Salah Diab, a prominent businessman in the oil sector.

According to media expert Rasha Abdulla of the American University in Cairo, it’s difficult to ascertain the full extent of the anchor investor problem, because the relevant business records are not made available to the public.

“There’s no transparency of ownership, so we really are not sure who owns particular newspapers,” she said.

Abdulla also said rumors of investor interference in content undermine public confidence in the media. “People are skeptical of the editorial policies or the intentions of the newspapers almost at all times, because we have not seen newspapers that have consistently been doing a good job, and we are always hearing stories of ‘so and so made a phone call and it affected the outcome of this particular article,’” she said.

Meanwhile, the alleged investor meddling comes at a time when, owing to an otherwise baffling political situation, clear reporting and critical analysis could not be more desperately needed.

An ongoing power struggle is playing out in Egypt between the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president, Mohamed Morsi, and the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who took power when Mubarak stepped down. After Egypt’s Constitutional Court, in consultation with the generals, dissolved the recently elected parliament last month, most political deliberation has taken place behind closed doors.

In other words, facts are in short supply. Michael Hanna, an analyst with the New York-based Century Foundation, said that amid the confusion and the government’s lack of transparency, some of the press have resorted to what he called “rumor-mongering.” He pointed to “crazy, scurrilous stories about the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] and their plans for violence” during the run-up to the delayed announcement of the result of the presidential election in June.

“I think there’s a very obvious place right now, particularly because of how opaque everything is, and the lack of verifiable facts—there’s a real need for that kind of longform, investigative journalism and look at systemic issues,” he added.

Despite the challenges, Egyptian media are far freer than before. Rasha Abdulla observed, “People have broken the fear factor. No one is afraid to speak out anymore, whether in a newspaper or on television or to their neighbor. People are not shutting up anymore.”

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Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo Tags: , ,