Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Advice for journalists

The media may be the country’s last line of defence, but who will defend it in difficult times, asks Samir Sobhi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Egyptian media is in a crisis. Its newly earned freedom has sometimes run out of hand, and its soaring wings may yet be clipped unless timely action is taken. Within the profession itself, disorder and jealousies have taken their toll.

Even the mighty Journalists Syndicate does not seem to be able to contain the flurry of emotions that matters of press freedom, respect for the journalistic code of ethics and relations with the state have unleashed.

As part of the changes that have unfolded in the country, the press and the broadcast and social media have been catalysts as well as active players. And when some in the media have overplayed their hands, the reaction from the public or the state has not always been a kind one.

To complete the revolution that we have started we need a strong state. But to have a strong state, we need a strong media. A strong state that tramples on the media may gain muscle tone or vigour. But most likely it will lose both, as well as the support of the general public.

So, while we all stand by the state in its fight against terror, home grown or imported, we must not confuse the authority of the state with the infallibility of power. Our rulers must have our blessings, but also our oversight, and this is why the media must remain independent and strong.

The problems this country is facing can be blamed on outsiders, but this would be the easy way out. We have a gamut of issues that needs to be resolved, and we — let’s be frank — do not always know where to start. However, honesty is as good a start as any, and it is the press that keeps the state honest. Or at least it should aim to do so.

We have an elite that is supposed to lead the way. But aside from its prodigious talents in front of the television cameras, it is almost nonexistent in the streets. People in the backstreets of our underprivileged urban centres have no idea what the elite is talking about. And the army of strategic thinkers and political analysts leave the folks in distant towns baffled and bewildered.

I have also noticed that analysts can say one thing in one programme and its opposite in another, depending on who their interlocutors are. The cascade of commentary that some confuse for information has thus spilled over into puzzlement and disinformation. This does not seem to harm the journalists, however, who have been making money hopping from one talk show to another.

Some have their own talk shows, and some are having second careers as broadcasters. But the bonanza of the broadcasting world has not necessarily brought sense to the scene, instead bringing sensationalism.

It is like a dish of spaghetti, with meatballs drowning in an unappetising sauce and dripping all over the tablecloth of public opinion. Moreover, the country is getting ready to hold parliamentary elections. And yet between the isolated elite and the profusion of pointless reportage we don’t seem to know who to vote for, who is running and why the options are so limited.

Much of the current trouble I attribute to a lack of proper boundaries. Just like journalists who double-dip in parallel careers even when there is a clear conflict of interest, people in government seem unaware that they cannot do their work well unless they respect such boundaries.

Years ago, in times deemed less free, a slogan was plastered all over the walls of the capital city. It went thus: “No voice is louder than the sound of battle.”

The idea was simple, we were told. We had to eat, walk, travel, work, study, read and talk in a manner suiting the need to reverse the 1967 defeat. The slogan disappeared after the 1973 War, in which the country recovered from at least part of its military losses.

But its connotations didn’t disappear immediately. The freedom of the press that was suppressed by the regime led by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser never completely recovered. And even in the midst of our recent media boom, reversals of freedom remain a clear and present danger.

But it didn’t have to be this way. The Free Officers who launched the 1952 Revolution had a profound respect for journalists; some were even journalists themselves. Abdel-Nasser’s closest associate, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, was the country’s top journalist. Anwar Al-Sadat and Salah Salem also occasionally worked as newspaper editors or ran media organisations.

As a result, it is not the lack of respect for the profession or for its practitioners that is at the root of the problem. Instead, there is a lack of understanding of proper boundaries: the boundaries of state power and the boundaries of the freedom of the press. My argument, backed by multiple examples from recent history, is that you cannot have a powerful state unless you have a powerful media.

But, just as importantly, the power of the media lies not just in its freedom. It also lies in the quality, not the quantity, of its work, the calibre of its workers and its dedication to the public interest.

The country is still going through a transitional phase, and in the thrill and trauma of two revolutions it is sometimes easy to stray from the correct path. Yet we need to know that nothing good is going to come out of our frenetic efforts to modernise the country unless the state and the press understand their boundaries and respect them.

The scale of the public’s participation in the Suez Canal expansion project was impressive. The enthusiasm for this, and other projects the government says will bring prosperity to the nation, point to the vitality this country still has. In the middle of the seemingly endless bickering, we often forget that.

But this nation, which has staged two revolutions, is still waiting for the rewards to accrue. We need to push ourselves a bit further, walk the extra mile, so to speak. But unless we see a light at the end of the tunnel, self-doubt will set in.

The businessmen and bankers of this country, as well as the planners and economists, are put on notice. They have to act, and the government needs to help them. Moreover, their actions must not be just about money-making.

Profit is a must, of course, but the people cannot wait forever for the so-called trickle-down effects. This nation, in which at least one out of five young men and women are unemployed, is at the end of its tether.

We don’t just need mega-projects, glitzy buildings and polished neighbourhoods. We need small businesses, micro-projects and small shops for neighbourhood entrepreneurs. Banks should step up to this task, and civil society should be allowed to play its role unhindered. If we don’t help the underprivileged, who demanded bread and dignity in January 2011, we will have been sleeping on the job.

The expectations are high and the task is as arduous as it is urgent. I hear people talking about the revival of Egyptian identity. I hear others say that national security is the top priority. But I particularly prick up my ears when I hear someone doing something about social peace as poverty is our number-one enemy.

We must make it our top goal to provide a job for every Egyptian man or woman. Government reform will be an essential part of this process. Ending corruption, raising efficiency and reversing lethargy are all the top priorities of the nation.

If only in the microcosm of the media, the Journalists Syndicate has also addressed such problems in its recent meetings, since much that is keeping the nation behind is already manifesting itself within the tiny world of journalists.

Egypt is crowded, and so is the Syndicate. Egypt is torn among conflicting priorities, and so is the Syndicate. I would like the Journalists Syndicate, which brings together some of the best, and definitely the liveliest, minds in this country, to think of everything its members say to the government and apply it internally.

Training, inclusiveness, respecting boundaries and transparency about the rules are the main ingredients of good Syndicate work.

Years ago, when the Syndicate started out in a flat in the Immobilia Building in Cairo, the men who put it together were mostly newspaper owners. Only one journalist was in their midst, and that was Hafez Mahmoud, a talented editor who worked for the leader of the Constitutional Liberal Party, Mohamed Hussein Haykal (not to be confused with Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Al-Ahram’s former editor).

When the Free Officers took over in 1952, they sent one of their own, the flamboyant Salah Salem, to run the Syndicate. The government also decreed that newspaper owners be excluded from the Syndicate, which prompted the writer Ihsan Abdul-Qoddous to publish an article in the magazine Rose Al-Youssef demanding that newspaper owners be allowed to form their own union. His view was ignored by the powers that be, however.

In May 1960, the Egyptian press was nationalised, and all media organisations (including Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, Al-Gomhouria, Al-Shaab, Dar Al-Hilal, and Dar Al-Maaref) became government property. Of all the nationalised papers, Al-Ahram was the luckiest, for it acquired Abdel-Nasser’s confidante for its chief editor. With Heikal at the helm, Al-Ahram became the Arab world’s leading publication and a must-read for statesmen, diplomats and analysts everywhere.

Heikal’s scheme for modernising Al-Ahram was the envy of the local and Arab press. And despite the well-known constraints on freedom at the time, the newspaper was able to establish a tradition in which writers of various leanings were allowed to join its ranks, their opinions offering much-needed critiques of government policies and practices.

When former president Anwar Al-Sadat came to power, he came up with a plan to turn the Journalists Syndicate into a place for social gatherings rather than a functional union with a tendency to express political views. His attempts to dispose of what he called the “journalists’ headache” were less than successful, however.

It was also around this time that demands for joining the Syndicate started to multiply, first from the advertising agents, who wanted their own chamber, and then from other media-supporting professions. Before long radio and television broadcasters, novelists who wrote occasional articles in the newspapers, and press officials in various government departments were all demanding membership.

Unwilling to expand beyond a reasonable size, the Syndicate felt the pressure. One solution was to create another union for all media workers, a valid option that still lingers on the drawing board. Moreover, the multiplication of media organisations over the past few years, with dozens of new publications hitting the stands, has not alleviated the Syndicate’s problems either.

As some of these new publications achieved prominence, they started head-hunting for talent in the ranks of the state-run media. The resulting situation was a bit bizarre, for the boundaries of professionalism were sometimes intentionally overlooked to the advantage of both writers and publishers but not necessarily the public.

People wrote for competing publications, often holding a job with a government newspaper while also writing for an opposition publication at the same time. A few rules, if not laws, were broken in the process.

But it seems that no one was brought to account for violating his contract with his original employer. As time went by, many journalists who were still in the pay of government-run publications started doubling up as television presenters. With the rules now either relaxed or quite tossed away, the practice became quite common, and even the head of the Journalists Syndicate now has his own TV programme.

All this goes to show that it is urgent that we now either rewrite the rules or go back to obeying the existing ones. The current situation, in which everything can be either right or wrong depending on where you stand, is quite untenable.

We can debate forever whether a particular rule is useful, and we are free to alter any rule if we agree that this is in the best interest of the Syndicate, or the country as a whole. But we cannot go on ignoring the rules we are supposed to enforce.

There are a lot of journalists in this country, though there are no longer perhaps the exceptional talents of the past. Today, there is no Fekri Abaza, no Ihsan Abdul-Qoddous, no Heikal, no Ahmad Bahaa Al-Din, and no brothers Mostafa and Ali Amin. We have opted for quantity and allowed quality to slip.

Moreover, there are now over 13 media departments in the country’s universities, adding thousands to the ranks of aspiring journalists every year. Some may see this as a sign of progress, but progress is not what I see when I read the news these days. Instead, I see flawed reporting, sensationalist writing, skewed editorialising and the poor checking of facts.

 So, although I am not against quantity, there is a need to at least go the extra mile and train the young properly. A good journalist is not someone with an impressive degree or even a frequent by-line but someone who can keep his or her eyes on the issue and ask the right questions.

There is one battle that the Journalists Syndicate needs to fight, and that is the battle against those people who want to buy the loyalty of journalists with money. If our journalists are bought, who will tell the truth? If our journalists lose perspective, who will dig deep for the facts?

The Syndicate’s General Assembly is scheduled to meet in March. I am confident of its ability to make the tough decisions needed to end the current dilemmas. My advice to them is to respect proper boundaries. Either that or change them.

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