Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 April 2006
Issue No. 790
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

A true fourth estate

By Salama A Salama

Perhaps it is time to reconsider the future of our party newspapers at a time when we are re-examining the partisan experience as a whole. Recent developments in which the ethics of the press and reporters' rights were violated show that this kind of media, whatever its orientation, has become a superfluous appendix which needs to be excised. This was clear during the battle over the Wafd Party in which violent conflict over the party's newspaper manifested itself.

The partisan press which has so far subsisted in a state of "sleep" has done little to influence our political life, increase public awareness or consolidate freedom and democracy. None of the party newspapers has flourished so as to become independent of the party's funding or control.

With one or two exceptions the majority of publications acted as no more than labels whose function is to show that the party exists. Others, under the pressure of financial need, became political furnished flats to be leased to the advantage of the ruling party in political battles.

Western democracies, by contrast, have rarely known this kind of press except in a few instances. Newspapers in the west reflect public opinion, and are an instrument of enlightenment and supervision which relays facts and the truth. By this definition a newspaper will remain partial to the truth with its many facets. The Western press thus strives to uphold justice, democracy and pluralism and to reflect the interests of the broad mass of society. All this contradicts with the narrow partisanship and programmed political ideologies that induce newspapers to blindly support political parties and censor whatever contradicts their ideologies.

In Europe, with the exception of L'humanitée issued by the French Communist Party and a similar newspaper in Italy, in addition to some obscure publications, Western political parties do not support newspapers and make them their mouthpieces. The European and American press are as a whole independent with the leverage to freely move in the political environment.

Despite the clear editorial policies adopted by different newspapers and which could range from right-wing conservative to leftist and progressive Western publications remain non-partisan and non- affiliated to a specific political party or group.

A case in point is the American presidential elections during which The Washington Post announced that it would not support President G W Bush. The Post 's editorial policy was clear in this respect but it did not mean the newspaper would place itself at the service of the competing Democratic Party.

In Europe The Economist and The Daily Telegraph supported the US-led war on Iraq. But again this did not require that they remain committed in principle to supporting the policies of Tony Blair's Labour government. The Independent, by contrast, unequivocally rejected the war. The press thus mirrors the full range of public opinion while remaining free of partisan politics and the control of individuals who are driven by narrow interests.

All of this is a far cry from our partisan press which in many cases has degenerated into pamphlets and manifestoes authored by the party leader. The latter may go so far as to actually ban reporters who differ with him.

The era of Soviet-style "Pravdas" has ended all over the world, yet the predicament of Egypt's partisan newspapers continues as part and parcel of a greater one afflicting the national press as well. The future of party newspapers remains, in fact, dependant upon that of its national counterparts which also need to be liberated from state ownership and control. The national press has also become partisan since it will always submit to the ruling party's directives one way or the other.

We cannot expect partisan papers to disappear anytime soon. But the evolution of political life and of dynamic and active parties should make them redundant. Only then will our press be truly said to have become a "fourth estate" that is independent of the party, whichever that might be.

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