CAIRO: When a conference that initially aimed at highlighting business practices of Egyptian media turned into a battlefield between public and private-run newspapers, the audience left with one definite message on Egypt’s press integrity: curb your enthusiasm.
The conference – which was entitled “Media and the Private Sector: Partnership or Confrontation? – opened Wednesday on a rather quiet note that stressed the importance of seeking objectivity and balance between news reporting and personal/business interests.
Speakers from Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party, such as Moufid Shehab and Ali Eldin Helal, played on several tones such as “press freedom versus responsibility and “objectivity versus profitability. They criticized some press publications for spreading rumors and mayhem that at times jeopardized Egypt’s economic stability and dragged the stock market.
They also brought up the newly adopted media charter and said it would “regulate the media rather than restrain them. Arab governments, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, adopted a satellite broadcasting charter on Feb. 12 that will entrench state control over broadcasts and curtail political expression on the airwaves over a region of some 300 million people.
The Arab charter – which was criticized by both media members and human rights activists – bans airing material seen as undermining “social peace, national unity, public order and general propriety, as well as criticizing religions or defaming political, national or religious leaders.
However, the discussion blazed in an afternoon session when members of the press took the floor and began a war of words between public and private media. Momtaz El-Ott, editor-in-chief of state-owned Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper, said that the private media took advantage of Egypt’s press freedom.
“Private media misunderstand the meaning of freedom . They serve their own interests by either polishing or smearing specific business people.
On the other hand, Magdy El-Galad, editor of private-owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, blamed state media as well as some business people for creating this sort of “corrupt journalism.
“[Several] private businesses exploited the media in publicizing their own projects . similar to the old tradition of using the media in serving political interests, he said. “These business people seized the chance that journalists receive very low salaries and hired them as ‘press advisers’ to serve their own interests. This is a malpractice that public media created in the first place.
Corruption in Egyptian media, he added, begins with chief editors of both public and private publications. “There are some newspapers, and I realize what I’m saying, that fabricate headlines first and then place stories so that they can sell, he pointed out. “There are chief editors – both in public and opposition newspapers – who need to receive proper news training to qualify as journalists and not even chief editors.
El-Galad also criticized public officials disclosing information to publications they favor and hiding information from others. On the other hand, he doubted the integrity of media that tarnish the regime or public figures and at the same time lack objectivity.
“In my opinion, those are the media that serve interests of the regime because the Egyptian citizen needs someone to swear at the regime on his/her behalf. This fills citizens with happiness and satisfaction.
Egyptian billionaire and telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris – who owns a stake in Egypt’s popular daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm – said he decided to establish a private newspaper because he couldn’t find a reliable source of news in Egypt.
“The newspapers that we [had] in Egypt are either public – and those follow a clear-cut scheme which is what you read today, you will read tomorrow – or the yellow press that lack magnitude, he explained.
“The reality was that we couldn’t find a serious newspaper that is objective and can differentiate between news and rumors.
He pointed out that while Al-Masry Al-Youm was founded and financed by business people, it was balanced and did not serve any of their business interests. “I was attacked in Al-Masry Al-Youm, Sawiris said.
Salah Diab, a prominent Egyptian businessman and co-founder of Al-Masry Al-Youm, that the newspaper was objective in its reporting because ownership is completely separate from management. “I never interfere in Magdy’s work and tell him publish this and don’t publish that.
However, as owners of Al-Masry Al-Youm were celebrating their success, one journalist present at the conference was skeptical and started questioning their attitude towards their newspaper in the conference.
“Why does the conference merely seem to be about the success of Al-Masry Al-Youm? he asked the speakers.
El-Galad said that while Al-Masry Al-Youm was “clearly independent of any personal or business interests and thus more successful, other less successful newspapers attack it and accuse it of serving a hidden Israeli agenda.
“He is referring to Rose Al-Youssef, Lamees El Hadidy, prominent television presenter, columnist at Al-Masry Al-Youm and moderator of the conference, told the audience.
On this point, El-Galad bombarded words of criticism on state-owned Rose Al-Youssef, saying it was severely beaten by Al-Masry Al-Youm and was only trying to sell copies by attacking his newspaper. He also lashed out on Rose Al-Youssef’s chief editor, hinting he envied El-Galad’s success in running the paper.
“Circulation figures determine success of any newspaper. And by comparing figures, Rose Al-Youssef has proved a failure [in the face of] Al-Masry Al-Youm, Sawiris said.
The conference stimulated a discussion among the audience. “It turned into a personal vendetta, one audience member commented.
“I cannot endorse this attitude that one journalist openly attacks another colleague like this, said an Egyptian journalist who attended the conference.
In the end, the conference that set out to determine whether the relationship between media and the private sector was a partnership or a confrontation was left without answers.