Sunrise on the Nile

Egypt’s news media enter a new era
March 1, 2011

As Egyptians tried to shake loose nearly thirty years of darkness, the Egyptian press stumbled toward the sunlight, too. The early results portend vast journalistic shifts, and maybe not just in Egypt.

Egypt’s media have long been dominated by the state, as is true in much of the Arab world today. Egyptian journalists at the state-run outlets have traditionally been blind to the most pressing news while casting former president Hosni Mubarak as the people’s Pharaoh. Journalists who dared to touch taboo issues faced prison or heavy fines. News outlets that offended the regime were simply shut down. Independent bloggers were harassed and hounded by government-paid thugs.

It came as no surprise that when Al Jazeera, the fifteen-year-old Qatar-based outlet, defied threats and continued saturation reporting of the January 25th uprising, its Egyptian satellite signal was cut, its license pulled, and some of its journalists arrested. But Al Jazeera and its more conservative competitor, Dubai-based Al Arabiya, persevered. Along with a group of fearless bloggers and social media users, they cemented their place as the alternative to the state-run media’s lies.

In so doing, they underscored the necessity of honest, fearless reporting as a prerequisite for democratic change. The strongest message from Tahrir Square to journalists from Riyadh to Rabat is that stories that speak the truth carry the most power.

As the Mubarak regime’s shackles began to slip, Egyptian media reports began to change dramatically as journalists discovered their voices and consciences. Al Masry al Youm (Egypt Today), one of the country’s fledgling independent newspapers and a frequent regime critic, reported accounts of government thugs staging lootings. It challenged state media for spreading a “culture of fear” and conspiracy theories about Israeli-trained protestors. Journalists at Al Ahram, the government’s main mouthpiece, and at Rose al Youssef, another state-run paper, held demonstrations at their offices decrying corruption in journalism and lack of professionalism.

Some high-profile state television journalists took leaves of absence in protest of orders from on high to continue broadcasting propaganda. Shahira Amin, a prominent presenter, resigned. She told Al Jazeera’s English language service that she couldn’t “feed the public a pack of lies.”

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While the upheaval’s fate was still unclear, Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, editor of Al Gomhouriya, a major state-run newspaper, addressed the protestors in a front-page column, saying, “We apologize for not hearing you, and if we heard you, for not paying attention to your demands.”

His apology was noted in Al Ahram’s English-language weekly, which also called out the state-run news media’s “reliance on exaggeration or outright lies” and refusal to tell the protestors’ stories. (Al Ahram didn’t mention its own record.)

This newfound honesty was only able to flourish after a path had been cleared both by journalists and social media users who risked their lives openly defying the government. Despite beatings and arrests, many journalists and bloggers persisted, bolstering morale by churning out ground-level accounts of critical events.

Twitter and the like became electronic megaphones, delivering both practical news (what streets were safe, where medics were needed) as well as charting participants’ emotions as they raced between elation, despair and, ultimately, absolute joy. Unlike failed protest drives by more established groups, youth-driven Facebook pages assembled thousands of supporters online and united disparate sectors of the eighty-million-person nation.

Just as the Tunisian upheaval inspired Egypt’s protestors, Arab journalists cannot ignore what happened in Egypt, the most populous Arab country. Although much of the region’s news media live under the thumb of the government, political parties, religious groups, or others who think they own the truth, Egypt has shown that it does not always have to be thus.

Online news operations have sprouted, angering and frustrating authorities in places like Kuwait and Jordan. Young Arab journalists are showing new daring in their reporting, and are coordinating across the region.

Arab journalists face great challenges even beyond government bullying: low pay, low respect, and editors too timid to make changes. As Egypt’s upheaval was evolving, Hisham Kassem, Al Masry al Youm’s first editor, likened the state-run media’s performance to a “crash-landing.” Speaking from Cairo, he said honest news coverage was gathering steam, but was not yet surging because editors didn’t know what lay ahead.

But the morning after Mubarak resigned, Al Ahram editors saw the future and rose to embrace it. They greeted readers with a stunning, bright red headline flared across its front page: THE PEOPLE OVERTHROW THE REGIME.

Stephen Franklin is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, The Philadelphia Bulletin, the Miami Herald, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he has trained journalists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, and Pakistan. He is currently the ethnic and community media director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, a nonprofit organization that helps Chicago’s diverse communities and nonprofit organizations tell their stories. He is working on a book about his longtime bond with the Middle East, Captured by the Light.