CAIRO: The stand-off between a group of disgruntled journalists at Al-Ahram newspaper and its chairman of the board Morsi Attallah earlier this week has set a healthy precedent in a media organization that is deeply embroiled in maintaining the authority of the Egyptian regime.
Al-Ahram was founded in 1875 and is the second oldest Egyptian daily. Its circulation, though down significantly in the past four years, still surpasses any other Arabic newspaper in the region.
As a “national newspaper, however, it has displayed its abject failure, departing from its natural role as a state-run newspaper to act as a forum for all Egyptians regardless of their political affiliation, to becoming a mouthpiece for the ruling National Democratic Party.
With the advent of an increasing number of independent titles like Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Badeel as well as private satellite TV channels with strong political programming and the ground-breaking Al Jazeera, the rug was literally pulled from under the feet of all state-run media organizations (terrestrial TV included).
Growing competition for readers and viewers has, on the one hand, fundamentally changed the media landscape in Egypt, and on the other, exposed the endemic corruption and inefficiency marring these dinosaur institutions. The idea of state-owned media in itself is an anachronism in the 21st century, where private ownership or the public service model (as in the BBC) have been the order of the day all over the world for decades – unless you live in China or North Korea.
This long introduction is not unrelated to the roots of what happened at Al-Ahram last week.
The Al-Ahram board’s decision to prohibit its journalists from working for any other media organization seems to be perfectly logical on the surface. How can the same journalist be writing for two competing publications? Where would this reporter’s loyalties lie? Naturally with the highest bidder. The clear conflict of interests creates a situation where ethical considerations can be seriously compromised with the promise of seductive financial compensation for reporters.
This is especially true because at the heart of their grievances, the protesting journalists cited extremely low pay and an unfair distribution of revenues, with reporters inhabiting the lowest rung of the salary scale, while upper management and the advertising staff rake in the bulk of the newspaper’s profits.
What the discussions filling airtime and column inches all week lacked, however, was any mention of the incident that triggered the board’s decision in the first place. (Note that the rules which Attalah recently activated are nothing new, but have been ignored for decades.)
It all began with the war on Gaza – that war which has exposed more than just the wide rifts between the Arabs, but also the Egyptian regime’s almost pathological fear of a truly free media.
Throughout the 22-day offensive, Israel had refused to allow the international media entry into Gaza and until only a few days before the ceasefire, Egypt had also refused to allow journalists into the war zone.
When orders were finally given by Egyptian authorities to allow journalists in, they had to get special security clearances and priority was naturally given to reporters with the state-owned newspapers. One of these reporters, who I will not name because I was not able to confirm the incident directly from her, works for Al-Ahram. She was allowed through with a photographer.
But, according to another source in Al-Ahram, who also spoke to me on condition of anonymity, the story she filed ended up in the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm, much to the chagrin of security personnel who reported her to the board, triggering the sweeping crack-down on “Al-Ahram freelancers.
Fundamentally, what this reporter did was a breach of basic journalistic ethics: she secured clearance as a representative of one paper, but wrote the story for another publication.
Allegedly, Al-Ahram had refused to run her version of the story, so she ran it in the independent paper which accepted it without censorship. Al-Ahram management apparently responded by referring her to a disciplinary committee. But I was unable to confirm this.
The point is that the debates triggered by the Al-Ahram reporters’ unprecedented protests ignored one fundamental fact: that money is not the only reason why journalists in the state-run media choose to freelance for independent publications.
It is no secret that government control over both print and broadcast media in Egypt leaves little or no room for dissenting voices.
This is naturally frustrating for journalists who did not have the choice before, but with the availability of independent channels, they can now express their opinions and write the stories that would not have been allowed to run in the state-owned press because of official red lines.
Even though on the surface the Al-Ahram protest may have been about salaries and the unfair distribution of revenues, you only need to scratch the surface to find out that professional frustration has also driven them to freelancing.
Like all journalists, Al-Ahram reporters too believe that they play a vital role in democratic transition. This role has been hijacked for decades by state control. Perhaps this protest will eventually dismantle a media reality in Egypt that is not fit for a true, or even an aspiring democracy.
Rania Al-Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.