Egypt Independent

Final Issue: Media stuck between the state and the corporate sector



This piece was written for Egypt Independent’s final weekly print edition, which was banned from going to press. We offer you our 50th and final edition here

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Amid a troubled political climate and an unsettled transition process, Egyptian media outlets are struggling to endure the state’s tight grip over press freedoms and the abusive working conditions imposed by proprietors of some private media.

For decades, media ownership was completely controlled by the state, as print, broadcast and radio outlets functioned as its mouthpiece, spoon-feeding the public its propaganda schemes.
 
In the mid-2000s, a new class of business owners formed what was then described as more “independent” media outlets. A wave of private channels and newspapers were opened to challenge the regime’s tight grip on media freedoms.
 
But hopes for a truly independent media are being threatened, as private media owners continue to either intervene in the editorial policies set by journalists or abuse the rights of journalists working there.
 
The problems at Al-Badeel and Al-Tahrir newspapers are just minor examples. Last October, a group of editors and journalists at Al-Badeel were laid off due to what was described by former Editor-in-Chief Khaled al-Balshy as an editorial intervention by the owners.
 
“Al-Badeel was a different, bright experience by all measures. Regrettably, however, it was stifled for several reasons,” said Ahmed Ramadan, one of the senior editors.
 
Ramadan recalled that when Balshy tried to reopen the paper in 2010, he began with the website, soliciting the help of former editors and reporters. All made financial contributions to revive the website but the money was not enough.
 
Then, in March 2011 — two months after the 25 January revolution broke out — several interested investors emerged.
 
“More than one group approached us to fund the project, but several of them were capitalists or part of the [Hosni] Mubarak regime. We weren’t enthusiastic about working with them, since this would go against our paper’s leftist principles,” he said.
 
Later, he said, a group of Nasserist-leaning businessmen came forward and promised to start reprinting the paper while bearing all the costs of running the website, as well as paying the editorial team’s salaries. They also promised to invest LE25 million in the first year, but these promises never came to fruition.
 
Shortly afterward, however, conflict emerged between the staff and the management when the new owners attempted to interfere in the editorial policy, said Balshy.
 
“The paper’s stance toward the Syrian revolution was not very much liked by the Nasserist owners. Their intervention led me to present my resignation four times, but my resignations were always rejected,” Balshy, who was later elected to the Journalists Syndicate’s board, told Egypt Independent at the time. “They believe that what’s happening in Syria is a Western conspiracy against the regime, while I believe it is a conspiracy by the repressive regime against its own people.”
 
In this polarized context, the owners decided to drastically reduce their investment to LE720,000, and canceled plans to start printing again. They reneged on promises to hire many of the journalists who worked on temporary contracts, Balshy said.
 
“We felt like we were in big danger after the arbitrary measures taken by the owners. But the biggest surprise was when they sold the website to an Egyptian-Saudi investor named Mohamed al-Sabban, who is known to belong to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ramadan said.
 
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, he added. “Some of us decided to leave, but unfortunately, the majority decided to stay for financial reasons.”
 
Meanwhile, journalists at Al-Tahrir newspaper who were hired on temporary contracts went on strike last month, demanding their contracts be changed to permanent ones so they could become syndicate members.
 
The newspaper’s outspoken editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Eissa, rejected their appointments, claiming their editors had submitted reports to him stating that the journalists were not yet eligible.
 
But some of the editors, who are syndicate members, supported their striking colleagues. Their efforts were, however, dealt with harshly, as the administration dismissed the striking journalists and the editors who supported them. Eissa briefly resigned.
 
The current rift between journalists and a regime that is highly critical of the media on the one hand, and between journalists and corporate owners on the other, have led many independent journalists to seek a third way.
 
In 2011, a group of rights activists and media experts proposed to find a third route to ensure a total separation from the dual control of the state and the corporate bosses over media, but thus far efforts have faced serpentine legal constraints.
 
These activists planned to establish an independent channel called “The People Want” through the formation of a cooperative with an initial public offering, but legal constraints dogged the ambitious project.
 
Lawyer Reda Eissa, who was part of the initiative, said Egyptian laws prevent cooperatives from establishing media projects.
 
“Unfortunately, there is no unified law to organize cooperatives at large. We have a law for agricultural cooperatives, another for industrial ones, another one for consumption goods cooperatives; but we cannot establish a cooperative for a media product, and we cannot establish a cooperative for a bank, for example,” Eissa said. “The Egyptian citizen who wants to establish a cooperative does not enjoy the same privileges given to his or her counterpart in a company.”
 
The initial public offering can only be established for a company, not for a cooperative, which makes the enterprise subject to a complete takeover from any investor in the stock market.
 
“This threatens the whole idea of having no certain media owner to control the project,” he added.
 
Those who worked on the initiative also suggested establishing the channel by licensing an NGO concerned with media freedoms. One of the NGO’s activities would be to launch a channel.
 
Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arab Network of Human Rights Information and one of the initiative’s founders, told Egypt Independent that even this option is invalid within the current legal infrastructure.
 
According to the current NGOs law, the state can suspend the activity of any non-governmental organization, which makes such a project subject to closure at anytime.
 
“Once the channel presents content that the state would not like, it is going to be shut down by a judicial employee. It’s very risky,” Eid said.