Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2007
Issue No. 864
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The changing face of the news

Karim El-Khashab reviews the emergence of an "adversarial" press unseen in Egypt since the 1920s

The number of journalists facing prison sentences is growing. On top of last week's judgement against four editors of independent newspapers, all of whom received 12-month prison sentences after being found guilty of libelling senior NDP politicians, two journalists from Al-Wafd, and the paper's editor, now face even stiffer sentences. Found guilty of publishing statements falsely attributed to Minister of Justice Mamdouh Marei, they each received two-year custodial sentences.

Al-Wafd had quoted Marei as saying that a majority of Egyptian judges were ignorant and in urgent need of training if they were to do their jobs properly. The court found the attributed comments to be demeaning not only to the minister but to the judiciary as a whole.

The Press Syndicate has condemned the sentence and reiterated its call for custodial sentences for publication offences to be abolished.

This case has inflamed the already heated debate over freedom of the press and the role of independent newspapers. Egypt, argued the court in passing judgement, enjoys an unprecedented freedom of expression but many journalists do not use it responsibly.

Certainly the number of daily and weekly papers has increased dramatically in the last decade, with many adopting a critical position towards the government and regime. Hitherto uncrossed red lines have been repeatedly crossed, and now, argue many commentators, the backlash is setting in. The battle lines have been drawn: on one side are those who complain that press freedom is being curtailed, on the other those that complain such freedom is being abused.

The background to the confrontation is succinctly set out by Baheya, one of Egypt's most popular bloggers. She plots the rise of the independent press from the mid-1990s, when the falling readership of party newspapers such as Al-Wafd and Al-Arabi -- a reflection of growing disenchantment with party politics -- left a gap in the market that was quickly filled by independent publications, Al-Dostour being among the first. Hamdeen El-Sabahi, MP and the founder of Al-Karama Party, points out to another important factor, what he calls the emergence of the middle generation in the press. "There was an entire generation that had been lost and which found a home in the independent arena," argues El-Sabahi. They had spent years working in the state-run press but never managed to climb the hierarchy. This 40-something generation wanted a platform for its own voice, which was quite distinct from that of older peers and which those in senior positions in state-run organisations rejected. "When that door was shut people created a platform of their own," he says, "one that was rooted in opposition to the status quo."

Critics of the independent press claim that having created their own platform, independent papers then set about abusing the freedoms that allowed them to operate in the first place as they systematically attacked senior government officials.

"What is being done here is as much politics as it is journalism. We are being asked to be a normal kind of press in abnormal circumstances," says Bilal Fadl of Al- Dostour. "Because people haven't been able to practise politics outside on the street they practise it in the few mediums available, and the independent press is one of them."

If the Egyptian press has been affected by a generational shift, it has also been affected by a financial one. Many independent papers are bankrolled by businessmen who usually shy away from controversy. The allure of the industry, though, and the hope of taking a chunk of the multi million pound revenue of the national press, has proved too tempting.

Shaimaa Abdel-Fadel, who writes for Al-Masry Al-Yom, says that, "what the independent press has done is provide the reader with an alternative to the partisan press on both sides, though at the expense of putting profit -- i.e. circulation -- before quality," she says, lamenting what she claims is a decline in investigative journalism in favour of sensationalism. "It is not that things are made up, that's not the problem, the issue is what makes the headlines and what doesn't anymore."

This mix of money, a new generation and the hunger for non partisan news has led to what Baheya calls an "adversarial press" unseen in Egypt since the 1920s.

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