Different realities When protesters took to the streets on January 25, 2011, Al Ahram decided not to cover them. Al Bawaba, meanwhile, one of Al Ahram’s websites, covered the protests from the start. (Moises Saman via Magnum Photos)
When Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef arrived at a Cairo courthouse on March 31, Al Bawaba, the upstart website of the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper, covered his every move. The day before, Youssef had been charged with defaming the presidency and Islam. Now the opposition icon, flanked by bodyguards, headed to court surrounded by supporters.
Over the next few hours, Al Bawaba posted more than a dozen updates of the Youssef story. Several of the posts rehashed amusing bits from Youssef’s popular Twitter feed. In a media environment notorious for misinformation, Al Bawaba also provided rare proof of its source, including screenshots of the tweets.
It sounds routine, but for Al Ahram it wasn’t. Egyptians who only read the Al Ahram newspaper got none of this news. The paper’s coverage on April 1 included three sentences about Youssef posting bail. The news came at the end of a page-five article about an opposition sit-in at the courthouse, which the headline described as full of “clashes” and “violence.” Egypt’s largest state-run outlet had marginalized the story; the paper’s digital sibling, meanwhile, seemed to be operating on a dissonant plane.
This divide is the somewhat unanticipated consequence of an effort by Al Ahram management to achieve digital reform without fully revolutionizing from within. And it is a split that has persisted, with some significant adaptations, since the July 3 coup that toppled Morsi.
Journalists and editors describe Al Bawaba as the Al Ahram alternative that is better suited to its youthful, digital-era audience—the same storied brand, but with more Western-style habits, nonstop coverage, and fewer limits on what is considered fit to post. For young journalists in Egypt, the vibrant Arab blogosphere that has emerged over the last decade represents a certain freedom from repression—and many of the journalists are conscious that their old media was part of the problem. “I don’t work in the Al Ahram newspaper,” Amira Wahba, 30, a reporter for Al Bawaba, stressed back in February. “I work in the website for Al Ahram. There is a difference.” (Al Ahram has another website that is mainly a replica of the print edition: a largely unabashed reflection of the ruling regime, be it Islamist or military.)
Al Bawaba’s journalists acknowledge that, although official censorship was less commonplace in the convoluted wake of the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak and installed Morsi, political, military, and professional limitations ingrained in Al Ahram (and Egyptian news coverage generally) have continued to shape what and how they write. “To some extent we have freedom,” Wahba says, choosing her words carefully while seated outside the Al Bawaba newsroom. “But it is not enough freedom.” She attributes these persistent pressures to a commonly heard refrain: “The regime is the same as before.”
Despite the end of Mubarak’s reign, much of his media regime—a notorious network of legal codes, political pressure, economic and military interests—remains. These forces manifest in Egyptian journalism’s haphazard style: direct quotes, multiple sources, and factchecking are not standard in a newsroom culture long characterized by low pay, little training, few worker rights, and rampant conspiracy theories.
Al Bawaba journalists say they are trying to have a more professional approach to news (England’s Guardian is an aspirational model). But they are working against a deep societal distrust of the media. “The people passed 30 years of the Mubarak rule under self-censorship,” lamented Al Ahram copy editor Mofreh Sarhan. “To the extent that you sit in your room and lock the door, you still self-censor.”
The issue transcends the basic print-digital divide that is now familiar to newsrooms around the world. Al Ahram’s approach to news is a product of the Egyptian media regime, which until the 2000s allowed only state and party media to report the news, thereby stifling the development of, and respect for, a culture of independence, innovation, and transparency. Since the 1952 coup that created the modern state of Egypt, Al Ahram’s leadership has been closely aligned with the state propaganda regime. Today the organization is an aging and financially troubled beast—a conglomerate of more than a dozen publications (each with its own website), a publishing house, an advertising agency, a research center, and more. Founded in 1875, Al Ahram’s downtown headquarters is in disarray, its public image shattered by the uprising, its newsrooms overstaffed and underproductive, the years of corruption, patronage, and self-censorship a toxic stain.