By Tamim Elyan
CAIRO: During election season in Egypt, local media scrambles to provide wide-ranging coverage, with most newspapers announcing special coverage programs giving more space for relevant content and constituency-centric information.
For community newspapers running on a tight budget, cash flow coming in from candidates who want to promote their campaigns in their respective constituency can prove useful, however bringing the publication’s ethical coverage into question.
Mohamed Al Sayed, owner of Helwan Al-Youm newspaper, a community publication in Helwan, admits that they are not neutral and that candidates’ money influences editorial content.
“We depend on advertisements in this period because we have to make ends meet for the newspaper; so the editorial content may be in favor of candidates who pay more, however, everyone gets adequate coverage,” Al Sayed said.
The number of pages may also increase with more space for photos, as well as the number of issues printed during election season, according to Al Sayed, as circulation rises by 20 to 25 percent.
May Azzam, former editor in chief of Sout Al-Maadi newspaper said that such practices are understandable given the size of community publications and the temptations offered.
“Being small and independent, community newspapers seek the highest possible profit from advertisements and funds from the electoral season, an income season, and thus can be easily influenced,” she said.
“We mainly focus on covering electoral meetings that take place in the constituency with special attention to National Democratic Party (NDP) candidates as opposed to weak opposition parties,” Al Sayed said.
In Helwan, a fierce battle between Minister of Military Production, Sayed Meshaal, and Independent MP and journalist, Mostafa Bakry, is underway; however, Al Sayed explicitly backed Meshaal as the eventual winner of the constituency’s parliament seat.
Many candidates might fund whole issues of the publication, controlling the editorial content, and distributing them across the constituency for free as part of their electoral campaigns.
Experts argue that community newspapers have a bigger role to play if given the appropriate support, both professionally and financially.
“Community newspapers are responsible for presenting candidates and their programs to the public and analyzing how they respond to demands of the constituency as well as introduce the candidate to the problems of his voters as well,” said Inas Abo Yossef, professor of journalism at Cairo University’s faculty of mass communication.
“They have the advantage of being published from the constituency which puts them in a better position to reflect on the problems and aspirations of people as opposed to nationwide newspapers that focus on certain candidates based on certain agendas,” she added.
Walaa Gad Al Karim, executive director of Maat Center for Legal Studies, which recently ran a training program for journalists in community newspapers to develop their skills, said that these papers are not fulfilling this role adequately.
“Major newspapers focus on political ideologies and backgrounds of candidates, while community newspapers express day to day concerns of citizens living within a certain geographic area in more depth,” he said.
“But this doesn’t happen in reality due to the humble journalistic skills of the editorial staff and poor social and economic condition under which community newspapers operate,” Al Karim added.
Another problem facing community newspapers, according to Azzam, is people turning away from printed journalism to television as a source of news.
“Local TV stations and the growing online media with their visual attraction and low cost left little space for community newspapers to compete,” Al Karim said.
No accurate statistics exist about the number of community newspapers in Egypt which experts attributed to the fact that many of these newspapers are neither registered nor issued regularly.
“Community newspapers are spread across the country but they are dependent mainly on the support of governorates paving the way for election candidates with big checks to take over,” Abo Yossef said.
“The result is tainted coverage where no explicit distinction between editorial and advertorial content occurs,” Al Karim said.
He called for the intervention of the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC) to ban using newspapers to promote certain candidates’ campaigns.
Egypt is bracing itself for the implementation of the local administration law under which local provinces will enjoy more administrative independence in a more decentralized system.
However, experts say the new system won’t work without powerful community journalism.
“For the new system to work, strong public monitoring of a professional decision maker is needed; however that won’t happen without strong community journalism that acts as a watchdog,” Al Karim said.
“Major newspapers must support community journalism either by publishing their own local issues or through directly giving financial and professional support to existing community newspapers,” Abo Yossef said.
Abo Yossef called for mass media students across Egypt’s universities to contribute to these community publications to raise the quality of professional reporting. She also called for holding training courses for working journalists.
However, she said that these newspapers must find a mechanism to maintain sustainability and provide journalists working there with job security.
Azzam echoed these sentiments. “Journalists themselves need to change the way they think about their jobs in community newspapers from a temporary cash earning job to a more serious one and exert more effort to deliver high quality journalism,” Azzam said.
“Awareness of the importance of community newspapers must be increased among the public because they have great potential to grow even bigger than some major newspapers,” she added.