Little green in Arab Spring

Egypt Independent's closure a blow for environmental coverage

Last month’s closure of the Egypt Independent, a weekly newspaper and website, was a setback for progressive journalism in the region, but it has dealt a blow to coverage of environmental issues in a country still wrestling with major development questions in the wake of its revolution.

Launched in 2009 as an English-language edition of the privately owned Arabic daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, the Independent announced April 25 that its parent, Al-Masry Media Corporation, had decided to shut it down and squelch the final issue of the paper, which the editors published at instead.

Keeping with the Independent’s reputation for fearless coverage of the challenges facing post-revolutionary Egypt, the final issue focused on problems in the country’s media industry—its own demise chief among them. In a column that referred to her peers on the green beat as “endangered species,” environment editor Louise Sarant wrote:

For the past four years, the section’s journalists have reported in-depth on issues relating to political ecology, biodiversity, the preservation of native seeds, the struggles of farmers, habitat destruction, food sovereignty, energy, scientific discoveries, urban planning, solid waste management, industrial pollution, and the controversial drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing, while the rest of the Egyptian media has provided cursory coverage at best.

Some of the environmental violations are plainly visible but many other tragedies, such as destructive government policies, are less conspicuous and can easily go unnoticed. While kilometers-long oil slicks floating along the Nile are easy to spot, detrimental governmental policies are often unknown outside of ministerial offices.

Egypt Independent’s small but dedicated environment team has been committed since its inception to bringing into the public purview issues large and small that impact Egyptians and their environment.

Sarant didn’t respond to emails requesting comment, but her column went on to criticize other media outlets for treating environmental issues as “secondary to mainstream political dialogue.” It was the Independent’s view that with most Egyptians living in rural areas, environmental issues like agriculture, pollution, and energy should be part and parcel of that dialogue. According to Sarant:

For many Egyptians, the majority of whom live in rural areas, being able to access clean water, land to farm and resources to build a home, as well as natural resources and food security, are essentially what the revolution was about…

We believe the majority of Egyptians are less interested in who rules the country than equal and free access to the aforementioned resources required to sustain life, particularly when more than 40 percent lived below the poverty line of US$2 a day under the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2009, according to the World Bank.

Mohammed Yahia, the editor Nature Middle East (an online edition of the journal Nature) and a friend of Sarant’s, said that the Independent “probably did more environmental coverage than other mainstream outlets,” but it was far from the only outlet on the beat.

Al-Masry Al-Youm does a “fair share,” Yahia said, as does the newspaper . In addition, the state-run Al-Ahram, Egypt’s most widely circulated daily, has a new science and technology section, and Ahram Hebdo, its weekly French-language edition, has an environmental section.

Still, the Independent was “the best source for environmental journalism,” Yahia said, even if—as Sarant made clear in her final column—“Sometimes, their coverage was borderline between journalism and activism.”

Sarant’s farewell quoted three Egyptian activists attesting to the need for advocacy journalism and to the value of the Independent’s coverage, and Yahia agrees that there are many environmental issues facing Egypt.

“These could range from water security, with upstream Nile countries planning to build several dams that are poised to reduce water flow in the Nile to Egypt considerably, to issues of climate change and it’s various effects, such as loss of arable land due to increased salinity in the ground,” he said. “There are also several endangered species—often due to destruction of habitats. I think the most pressing issue would be climate change, though. It will have—and actually is already having—dire effects on the delta region of the Nile, which is often called Egypt’s breadbasket because it produces 50 percent of the country’s food. I saw these firsthand.”

The Independent’s closure is “a terrible loss for journalism in Egypt in general, and for science journalism in particular” Yahia added. “It was a truly independent outlet that was willing to ask the hard questions and challenge the government and people in power.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,