Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 July 2006
Issue No. 803
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Weighing the strike

It may have been unprecedented but was it effective? Amira Howeidy reviews a week without the press

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Journalists demonstrating in front of the People's Assembly on Sunday

Hoda Mahmoud, a 37-year-old apolitical businesswoman was, like many Cairenes, escaping the summer heat. At her villa in the North Coast she had little inkling of the unfolding battle between journalists and the government which last week came to ahead over draft legislation stipulating custodial sentences for publishing offences.

She went to buy a copy of the independent weekly Sawt Al-Umma from her newspaper vendor on Monday only to be told it had not arrived. She asked for the weekly Al-Osbou, but that, too, had not been delivered. When she was told that her third choice, the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Yom, was also unavailable, she realised that something was wrong. All three of Mahmoud's favourite newspapers were part of the 25 daily and weekly independent and opposition papers that had gone on strike to protest against the government's new press law.

Though Egypt has around 300 locally produced newspapers, the absence of 25, including some of the most popular titles, from the newsstands is being viewed as a significant, and unprecedented, occurrence in the country's 130-year-old press history.

"I think the press did an awesome thing by responding in this way," said Mahmoud.

The last time the press threatened to go on strike -- but didn't -- was in 1995 when parliament passed Law 93 which stipulated tough prison sentences for publishing offences. In the face of resolute opposition from the Press Syndicate the law was eventually repealed but its replacement, passed in 1996, also included jail sentences for certain offences, though the terms specified were shorter.

A decade on, and the press over which the government is once again attempting to exert control is unrecognisable: newsstands have been flooded with new daily and weekly newspapers, many of which criticise the establishment in a manner that would have been unthinkable just two years ago.

Al-Dostour, the revolutionary weekly newspaper that first appeared in 1995, only to be shut down three years later, and which then reappeared in 2005, led the charge. It was followed by a host of independent and opposition papers determined to cross all the "red lines". Suddenly the president and his family were being openly criticised. Only two months ago the pan-Arab independent Al-Karama (Dignity) appeared with the headline "Mubarak is politically dead".

Of the 25 newspapers that went on strike this week seven -- Al-Masri Al-Yom, Sawt Al-Umma, Al-Osbou, Al-Karama, Al-Arabi, Al-Wafd and Al-Ahali -- are considered political heavyweights. With the exception of Al-Masri Al-Yom, they are all weeklies. Being a daily, Al-Masri Al-Yom could play a significant role in the strike campaign, appearing on Saturday with the headline "Tomorrow Egypt is without press". On Monday it resumed printing. Under the headline "The free press won't give up" it carried columns by the editors of the weekly papers on strike.

According to its editor Magdy El-Galad, Al-Masri Al-Yom increased its print run by 25 per cent on Monday, and all the extra copies were snapped up early in the day.

By going on strike on Sunday the paper lost a day's advertising revenue, a sum of between LE30,000 and LE40,000, says Al-Masri Al-Yom 's CEO Hisham Qassem.

The announced circulation figures for local newspapers are generally seen as unreliable. The daily Arabic Al-Ahram says it sells approximately one million copies a day, as does Al-Akhbar. Al-Masri Al-Yom is believed to distribute between 10,000 and 50,000 copies a day. Topping the weekly independent newspapers is Al-Osbou, with a circulation of between 100,000 to 120,000 copies. It is followed by Al-Dostour, with between 80,000 to 90,000. The Nasserist Party's mouthpiece Al-Arabi and the independent Sawt Al-Umma, are believed to distribute around 30,000 copies each.

In a country of 72 million the circulation figures are unimpressive, even given that half the population is illiterate, and the strike is likely to have made ripples felt only by a narrow section of society.

But Heliopolis newspaper vendor Mohamed Mahmoud Ali, 73, better known as Mickey, says the "dedicated breed of readers" sorely missed their weekly dose of "free press" though they "understood and appreciated the decision to strike".

"I've been selling newspapers for over 50 years and this has never happened before. It was an unusual week for me," he told Al-Ahram Weekly, "but the papers had to do this to remain free. How can you write if you're not free?"

Though he says the strike didn't affect overall sales, with readers still buying the semi-official newspapers, Ali believes it was politically effective. "Read the headline of [the semi-official] Al-Akhbar today," he said. "Mubarak lived up to his promise and sided with the press and democracy: No prison sentences in matters of financial integrity."

On Monday, as parliament prepared to approve the draft bill in the face of press opposition, Mubarak intervened to have the most controversial article in the law dropped, though that still leaves a host of other controversial provisions that criminalise investigative journalists and leave them subject to imprisonment.

On Tuesday both the independent press (which opposed the bill and went on strike) and semi-official press (which toed the government line and supported prison sentences) adopted a surprisingly similar tone.

Al-Masri Al-Yom appeared Tuesday morning with the headline "The free press wins the first round... and the battle continues". The Arabic Al-Ahram appeared with the headline "Mubarak sides with freedom of opinion and expression".

Al-Masri Al-Yom 's editor El-Galad believes the events of the past few days "illustrate the power of the independent and opposition press in Egypt. But more importantly it points towards the future direction of the press in this country, in 10 years' time, say, when there will be an independent media which has shown it can lead a battle and win."

Compared to 1995, when journalists were up in arms against Law 93, and when the Press Syndicate had a strong board and chairman -- Al-Ahram 's editor Ibrahim Nafie -- the battle this time, argues El-Galad, is different. "This time round the board and its chairman are weak while the independent press came out stronger."

Media expert Ayman El-Sayyad disagrees with such an interpretation. Although the strike was a positive action, it remains significant that the leading independent paper Al-Dostour did not join in. It appeared as scheduled on Wednesday, with headlines lambasting the president and the 35 articles in the penal code and press law that can be used to imprison journalists.

"Nothing has changed in this regard," said El-Sayyad. "Where is the victory claimed by some newspapers when journalists still face imprisonment?"

And if the independent and opposition press is as powerful in influencing political decision making as it is saying, he asked, "then why did its solidarity campaign with the judges have no effect whatsoever on parliament which went ahead and approved a law that deprives them of any independence from the executive authority?"

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