Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Assem El-Kersh

Pressing concerns

Veteran journalist Salama Ahmed Salama speaks to Assem El-kersh and Shaden Shehab about the challenges facing the press and the present ills of journalism

Salama Ahmed Salama, born on 1 November 1932, started his career as a reporter with Akhbar Al-Yom . He subsequently moved to Al-Ahram , eventually becoming the managing editor. His daily column became one of the paper's most popular fixtures. He left Al-Ahram 2009 to join Al-Shorouk , where he acts as chief editor and writes occasional, eagerly awaited columns.

Click to view caption
Salama Ahmed Salama

What is your analysis of the different phases the Egyptian press underwent since the 1952 revolution?

There was press freedom before the revolution. Then the revolution began to think of the press as an extension of itself. It thought the press should be at the service of the regime, portraying its ideas and goals. This led to a press whose only task was to execute the orders of the regime and justify its actions. Discussion, reflection, they disappeared, let alone exposés. This was the beginning of the death of democracy in Egypt. It was a dark period in the history of the press.

Sadat tried to open the door for the press by allowing parties to be formed together with their mouthpieces. It was a step forward. To some extent the press began to reflect different political views. Sadat also cancelled the censorship laws, though self-censorship on the part of journalists was rife.

The situation did not change when Hosni Mubarak became president. But gradually, political developments brought greater press freedom.

External pressures were instrumental in obliging the regime to be more open towards press freedom. What actually happened, though, is that the regime made a simple choice. It opted to give the appearance of a free press while in fact keeping the strings firmly in its own hands. Newspapers and parties were formed but the situation was always controlled by the regime. A turning point came when the president fainted in parliament [in 2003] because it opened the talk of succession. It was an alarm bell, and it left no one in any doubt that things would change sooner or later, and that became a subject of discussion in the independent press.

The appearance of privately owned newspapers gave a boost to press freedom. Facing external pressure, the state could not intervene, so now we have a situation where the press publishes what it likes, and the state does what it wants.

Taboos broken, demonstrations common, issues that would once have been ignored now the daily diet of talk shows: don't you think this is to the credit of the regime?

Human rights have been politicised. Powerful nations have made them a condition of aid provision. Their violation, in a globalised world, can no longer be kept secret.

But didn't some journalists working on independent papers press ahead and break restrictive taboos of their own volition?

A number of newspapers, like Al-Dostour when it first appeared, had a great impact. Al-Dostour was established in 1995. Its licence was suspended [in 1998 after it published a statement by Egypt's then most militant Islamic group, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. It reappeared in 2005]. Such newspapers overcame restrictions and government interference. But at the same time there have been court rulings against journalists like [ Al-Dostour chief editor] Ibrahim Eissa.

Has the greater margin of freedom resulted in a degree of chaos?

As the margin of freedom increased so the fundamentals of the profession were shaken. Striving to be credible or accurate is no longer the goal of many journalists.

There are three basic problems facing the press today. The low income of journalists, a result of the weakness of press organisations, is the first. One result is that journalists work for several newspapers at the same time, or they become employees of the ministries they cover, or actively seek advertisements to supplement their pay. Then there is the absence of any freedom of information legislation. It is hard to pursue accuracy when you have no access to information. Then there are appalling professional standards, and shockingly compromised ethics.

How can that situation be reversed or cured?

By implementing the code of ethics and upgrading professional and living standards. By basing promotion on merit, so serious journalists take leading posts on their newspapers. That used to be the case. It was a crime to place an advertisement in the form of a story when [Mohamed Hassanein] Heikal was Al-Ahram 's chief editor. Any journalist who tried to pass such a story would have to pay for the disguised advertisement.

What effect has satellite TV, and talk shows in particular, had on the press?

The satellite channels have added to the competition and put pressure on the print media. Many journalists are keen to work for such channels. There are more journalists than ever working as presenters. TV broadcasters wield more power than the owners of newspapers.

How do you assess the national, private and opposition press?

The opposition press suffers from the weaknesses of the parties the titles represent. Eventually the opposition press will disappear. In a situation in which there are strong parties and real democracy, opposition newspapers become redundant. Some papers might lean towards one party, others to different parties, but they do not act as mouthpieces. Party papers are a hangover from communist days.

The private press owns the future. It has succeeded because it does not face restrictions and is bold. It has succeeded in changing the face of the press by giving attention to the make-up of the pages, foregrounding photographs, and providing readers with news they find interesting. The president's photo does not have to be on the front page on a daily basis. The private press succeeds in attracting the readers by providing them with what they want.

National newspapers remain bound up to pleasing the regime. Their agenda is dictated by presenting the state's news, not focussing on what their readers are interested in.

But do they really have any other choice, given that they are state-owned?

The problem is there is no real thinking outside of the box. Senior journalists on national newspapers are in the situation in which they have always been. They receive instructions from the state that they have to follow. They give the regime what it wants and in return they keep their posts. There are concessions to be made, though some journalists have managed to maintain their integrity.

You have spent most of your career working for Al-Ahram. Have you not found some positive aspects to the national press?

You don't have to be extreme in your making of concessions. It is possible to remain respectable. Take, for example, Makram Mohamed Ahmed. He didn't antagonise the regime, but neither did he become their lackey. He praised when he felt there was cause to praise, and criticised when he felt it was needed. Take all the negative factors out and Al-Ahram is a distinguished newspaper.

Will national newspapers eventually disappear?

No, they will stay. But they have to change. National newspapers have to keep in mind that advertisement income is shifting to TV. The move cannot be stopped and will have a serious impact on the finances of the national press. National papers need to find ways to attract rather than lose readers. They must offer something different than TV.

Many of the world's leading titles run features on their front pages, based on news or human interest stories, that is why you don't find every paper running the same front page. National papers need to refocus their content to compete with private titles and with TV.

How do you see the relationship between the state and the national papers developing?

National papers should be national in the most positive sense. They should enjoy greater freedom, though with some regulations in place, and address all segments of society and political affiliations.

The regime has opened up to private banks and TV channels etc, so why not privatise national newspapers. If this does not happen they will simply become an anomaly. The finance minister has said that the debts of national newspapers are their own problem and the state will not bail them out. I think the government is slowly lifting its hands from the national press.

But the regime still depends of national papers in shaping public opinion...

The whole situation is linked to the general political climate. If state intervention remains, privatisation will be difficult. If there is real democracy and freedom it is possible.

What about the future of the print media as a whole?

There will always be a place for printed media but it will undergo changes. Papers must adapt and attract new readers. The ones that are able to do this will survive.

Are there too many newspapers?

Very much so. There are less than three million regular readers, and increasingly newspapers are fighting for this limited pool. Competition is fierce.

The low number of readers is due to a 40 per cent illiteracy rate. In addition, there are no papers that seek to target the young. Nor is there any market research or polls to assess what readers want.

Do you miss Al-Ahram ?

That is a political question. I miss writing my column but in terms of health I can no longer write a daily column or commit myself to a fixed number of articles a week. Now I write whenever I want [in Al-Shorouk ].

Why did you not become editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram ?

The regime does not want someone who is independent in his thinking. It wants someone who works on its account. I thank God that I was never chief editor. I have kept my reputation intact.

How do you view the ownership of newspapers by businessmen? Isn't there a danger of proprietors imposing their own agendas?

I would prefer papers to be owned by a holding company and not an individual. Then there should be a chief editor and a publisher who act as the link between the owners and the board council. The board takes decisions and elections take place. In Al-Shorouk Ibrahim El-Muallim is the publisher, though there is a verbal agreement that he does not interfere in editorial policy.

Are you worried about the future of the journalistic profession?

The profession will correct itself. It has passed through greater challenges. A new generation of journalists will beat the odds and lead a return to the fundamentals of the profession.

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