Big Brother is still watching
The selection process for new national chief editors indicates that little fundamental has changed in efforts by those in power to control the media in Egypt, writes Ayman El-Amir
Regardless of the professional merits, or de-merits, of the newly-appointed editors of nearly 50 "national" Egyptian publications, the move gives clear indications that the practices of the defunct Mubarak regime still work behind the scenes. Some of the new editors may be known to some people but most of them are not known to most readers, at least professionally. This raises two questions: first, the criteria set for the selection process, especially by those who do not belong to the profession; and secondly, how will the new editors be judged when their terms expire three years from now? Will Big Brother be watching and influencing the selection on the basis of political rather than professional editorial standards?
Some of the new editors have vowed to resign their positions if any outside authority should try to interfere with their editorial policies. This, however, is more easily said than done. The prestige and, more importantly, the benefits that go with it are too precious to give up. In the equation it is easier to compromise on freedom of expression than to lose a prominent position. At least this is what experience has proven when flattering editors amassed literally hundreds of millions of pounds over two decades by rewarding themselves with a combination of salaries and a percentage of the earnings from distribution and from advertising. The controlling regime looked the other way as those editors violated every financial regulation in the book.
The Egyptian press has experienced censorship for a century, starting when the British declared Egypt a protectorate in 1912 and imposed whatever press restrictions they wanted to shield themselves from the wrath of the Egyptians. In the era of national dictatorship, following the ascendancy of Nasser, particularly after the 1961 press regulation law that nationalised the press, there were no independent newspapers to speak of and all major publications were placed under official censorship. A new formula was contrived by which ownership of the most influential national newspapers were transferred to the Arab Socialist Union in its capacity as "the alliance of the working people" -- a Soviet style free press. The president's speech on all occasions had to be accorded the front-page and published in full in the inside pages, and profusely flattered.
For people who are not familiar with this era, the censor physically sat in person in the newsroom of Al-Ahram as well as in other nationalised newspapers, reviewed and signed off on all galleys before they went to press. Shawqi Al-Kayyal, the censor, came with instructions about what cannot be published, depending on what news the wire services reported during the day. If something came up during the evening, where no prior instructions existed, he had to call his boss, Talaat Khaled, who in turn called higher ups for a decision.
Under former president Anwar El-Sadat, censorship was officially abolished, but in effect it was only finessed. It became the responsibility of editors who were anxious to keep their positions and the huge benefits they drew from them. The editor-in-chief became the censor-in-chief whose main role was to please the powers that be in return for the benefits and social status he was rewarded with. Sadat played off one editor against the other, making everyone believe, at one point or another, that he was his favourite speechwriter or political consultant. However, he tolerated no political opposition and, in 1974, did not hesitate to fire the celebrated writer of the Nasser era, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, because he criticised Sadat's line of negotiations with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger following the October 1973 War.
Under the Mubarak regime the game became more convoluted and less sophisticated, consistent with the nature of the regime. The Supreme Press Council was established under the appointed Shura Council. Appointment of editors, licensing of publications or revoking the licenses was placed in the hands of the Shura's Press Council. Thus, an invisible Sword of Damocles was hanging over the heads of all editors, and they behaved. However, there was no freedom of information act, new publications had to be pre-approved, free editors with critical columns were dragged to courts and channels of state television remained state-owned, state controlled. That was what a deceased press colleague, the late Salaheddin Hafez, called "the margin of free press". Sparring continued between the press and media on the one hand, and the regime on the other.
While a number of daring television programmes aired by independent channels were shut down, more privately owned newspapers were published. There is no question that some new publications and TV channel programmes trespassed on public decency, decorum and the interest of viewers. They were seeking more excitement and circulation than public service. However, equally important has been the absence of objective criteria, public education and professional responsibility of reporters and broadcasters. What was most important was to sell "hot stories" and compete with other publications/TV programmes. In the absence of rigorous professional standards, freedom of information or public education it was mostly rumour-mongering, scandals and sniping at government failure.
In this poor professional and moral environment the question of judging reporting by credibility and accuracy does not arise. The tradition in other global newspapers was credibility, which sustained or ditched a publication. A poignant case in point was the publication by USA Today of a fabricated story about torture of Iraqi suspects in Abu Ghraib detention centre in 2004. The story was filed by the newspaper's correspondent in Baghdad, Jack Kelley, who resigned from the newspaper together with the managing editor, Karen Jurgensen, after the scandal. It was not that there was a dearth of stories about the torture scandal or its victims, or that it was more shocking than the real stories documented in pictures or video-clips. It was simply fabricated and a proven fallacy that put the entire newsworthiness and credibility of the paper at stake. Both professional and public awareness soon discovered and condemned the fallacy. Despite the resignations, the two million-strong circulation newspaper of the time lost its position. Public perceptions and value judgment have become the criteria for the credibility of a publication or a news channel, replacing old political approval.
This, however, is a two-way street. State agencies and the executive branch should completely lift their control of the media. The principle should be enshrined in public law and enforced by the courts. With this goes the primary need of abolishing all laws and regulations controlling the freedom of expression, including vague stipulations such as "the legitimacy of its purposes". The authority of the Shura Council and the Supreme Press Council should be scrapped. The editorial policy of newspapers is usually defined by the owner/publisher with the guiding principle that what they publish should be in the public interest, not rumours or pornography. The decades-old notorious law of printing and publication, which is the godfather of all forms of censorship, should be eradicated. Violations by any publication or TV channel should be brought before the courts for libel or distortion.
Nothing is more representative of press censorship than the insistence on retaining the Ministry of Information -- a relic of the era of the former Soviet Union. It may be argued this is necessary for the direction and management of state-owned radio and TV channels, with their reported staff of between 30,000 and 40,000 employees. This is another leftover from the early days of the 23 July 1952 military movement. The "state" should not be running this media or have anything to do it. It is true that staff numbers, the financial burden that goes with retaining them and the billions of financial losses incurred is a major problem that no information minister has dared to tackle. But this is a political rather than a business problem. There are huge numbers of superfluous underemployed loitering in the corridors of every floor of the overcrowded radio and television building. The problem should indeed be addressed and rationalised if the financial haemorrhage is to stop.
That leaves the press and the media with the problem of establishing judging criteria that could determine which of them should survive. This is a difficult issue that requires time, education and maturity. The continuation of state-owned media -- and nearly all newspapers -- is made possible only through state subsidy with very few privately owned newspapers and TV channels bankrolled by wealthy businessmen or external Arab funds, primarily Saudi or Qatari.
Press freedom is a two-way street that has grown over the years because of government reluctance to wean them or because foreign interest sustained them for ulterior motives. Both reflect a clear desire for control. The Shura Council, hardly elected by 10 per cent of Egyptians, and its affiliated Supreme Press Council has made a selection of new editors who are mostly sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Self-imposed censorship is still active under a new regime that has indicated it will not tolerate opposition to religious governance.
The writer is former correspondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.