CAIRO: With freedom of speech more an idea floated around rather than a reality in Egypt, with journalists sentenced to prison and fined for writing, some of Egypt’s journalists have resorted to the Internet to publish their controversial opinions, including commentaries on news, politics and the government.
Sowtona.com is a Cairo-based Web site offering a free haven for Arab and Egyptian journalists to submit their articles and opinion pieces.
The Web site, originally a Web blog space, was initially created to serve as a “medium for the average Egyptian citizen to voice his or her problems during the period of presidential elections. During that time, the space was used extensively by young Egyptian journalists to express their views, without fear or political boundaries, space constraints, editing or censorship.
When the portal was first launched and run by journalists, it seemed to be addressing Egyptian citizens at large, although the slightly limited service that it offered mainly catered to other journalists. Occasionally offering announcements of journalist training and posting in-depth coverage of the elections, at the time the blog spot was only considered a small information bank for journalists during the elections.
It was also useful for human rights activists, members of the media and judiciary monitors following the elections, since some of the posts summed up the election updates and media announcements, and also listed the widely reported election violations.
The narrow range of topics that the site had been designed to cover and the highly specialized content of the Web site apparently caused its moderators to believe that it would be difficult to maintain their audience at its previous status, especially after the presidential campaigns were over and people might have started to lose interest.
Consequently, it evolved recently with a new perspective to attract a larger audience and even involve Arab journalists. The first step began when the portal turned into the full-blown Web site Sowtona (Our Voice); simple, yet full of information and larger than its older version.
Multiple sections were added, with more links, journalism tips and educational resources, information of interest to journalists concerned with politics and society. The Web site has also featured membership where a person registers for free in order to be able to post comments and personalize his or her online web browsing. The comments are sorted by date and topic, and a search box makes it easy to drag out old information or to look for previous comments on a certain topic.
The Web site has an English version, with the same contents and posts. It also features legal documents, laws and charters concerning journalist’s rights, ethical issues in journalism (shedding light on libel and slander as a problem facing Arab journalists) and freedom of expression.
Sowtona has an extensive message board, where the journalists who created the portal can post messages, pictures, opinion pieces, human rights reports and news clippings that currently center on the governments conduct toward journalists and the status of freedom of expression in journalism and broadcast outlets in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The messages in general do not express support for a particular candidate, party, government or country; nevertheless, Egyptian journalists in particular are highly critical of the current government, Egypt’s upper house and National Democratic Party.
They often cite cases of oppression of Egypt’s journalists. In one post, a journalist said that the government had driven reporters and writers to the Internet where it has become their sanctuary and their only breathing space.
“The blogs and Web sites are now the new alternative press, said the post.