Media reform in Egypt.
By Maurice Chammah
Last month, Egypt’s Shura Council, the upper house of parliament appointed nearly fifty new editors for Egyptian newspapers owned by the state. The council is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the appointments were pure patronage. President Mohamed Morsi also appointed Brotherhood member Salah Abdel Maksoud, a former writer for Islamic magazines and deputy head of the Journalists’ Syndicate, as the new minister of information. “It is not my objective at the Ministry of Information to transform Egyptian television into a mouthpiece of government or other executive institute propaganda,” Abdel Maksoud said in a statement. Within a week, Al Akhbar, the second largest of the state-owned newspapers, had cancelled its opinion page and banned articles critical of the Brotherhood.
Worries mounted. We learned that the new editor of Al Ahram, Abdel-Nasser-Salama, had been suspended from writing in 2010 because his editors decided that his articles were incitements against the country’s Coptic Christian population. Another new editor, Gamal Abdel Rehim of Al Gumhoria, had reportedly told a Baha’i activist that she should be killed.
To protest the appointments, several writers for independent newspapers left their columns blank the next day. Magdy El-Galed, who is the editor-in-chief of independent newspaper, Al-Watan explained, “This space is left blank to object the attempts of the Muslim Brotherhood to control national press and publicly owned media institutions just like the ousted president used to do.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed outrage. “This is a troubling backward step that Egypt’s newly elected President Mohamed Morsi should not be taking,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. Veteran journalist Hisham Kassem told The National, “These actions show, if anything, that [Morsi and the Brotherhood] are jittery and really worried about their image. The first thing they should have done is nullify the media laws of Mubarak, but instead they are using them to crack down on political opponents.”
Around the same time, seemingly by coincidence, prosecutors in Cairo brought charges against editor Islam Afifi and television personality Tawfiq Okasha. Afifi had published a front-page editorial calling President Morsi a fascist and demanding that the army step in to “defend a civil state.” Okasha, long famous as a vitriolic pro-Mubarak personality, had called for Morsi’s assassination on air.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded to a question about the case. “We are very concerned by reports that the Egyptian Government is moving to restrict media freedom and criticism in Egypt,” she said. “Freedom of the press, freedom of expression are fundamental tenets of vibrant, strong democracies.”
Americans are regularly imprisoned for threatening their president’s life. Most of them, like David Williams in rural Mississippi last year, have a considerably smaller platform than Okasha, who owns a satellite channel and appears on it nightly. “There is a clear difference between freedom on the one hand,” said the new minister of information Abdel Maksoud about the case, “and between libel, slander, character-assassination and incitement to murder, on the other.”
Nuland’s comments highlighted the fact that this story of press freedom and its absence has been told so far as one in which the Brotherhood are just continuing Mubarak’s strategy of intimidation and cooptation. But the story goes back much farther, and the history of the press in Egypt illuminates its possible next turns.
Nasser’s Press Reforms: From Private to State-Owned Media
In 1960, Egypt’s first Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the newspaper industry. Calling it a “reorganization,” he transferred ownership of the four major publishing houses into the hands of the National Union, an organization meant to “the will and the authority of the people.” Since the revolution in 1952, the relationship between the press and Nasser’s ruling council had been tepid, with censorship and relative freedom waxing and waning with Nasser’s whims.
His whims, however, were not insincere. While researching the history of Egyptian journalism last year, I was struck by how candid Nasser could be about the point of censorship and of bringing the press under the state’s control.
“Freedom of expression in our country is a long subject,” he told foreign journalists in 1963. “We had a press before the Revolution which almost had become a trade. Cost of the establishment of a newspaper was not less than LE [Egyptian pounds] one million. Who could pay the LE one million but capitalism, feudalism, and the [political] parties? The parties supported the press and these parties had certain contacts with foreign countries, which interfered under the veil of advertisements and the need of the papers to be financed. Thus the press was influenced by foreigners.” The issue was not just one facing Egypt. In 1960, the American writer A.J. Liebling famously quipped in The New Yorker, “Freedom of the press is only guaranteed to those who own one.”
Nasser had been optimistic, no less regarding journalism than other areas of society, and his policies created the bloated bureaucracy that set the stage for Mubarak’s corruption. He wanted the state to protect journalists from the market, but could that be done without making them slaves of the state?
Egypt paid for what looks, in retrospect, like Nasser’s naïve optimism. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the press grew into a painfully unscrupulous supporter of Mubarak’s policies and excesses. In the 2000’s, he liberalized and allowed a crop of independent papers to grow in circulation. Nasser could have never imagined that the wealthy businessmen who founded these papers would owe their success to state nepotism, and hence wouldn’t criticize the leadership. Mubarak occasionally saw editors and journalists brought to trial, but more often his critics were just fired by their bosses, who were his friends.
When Mubarak fell, state and independent newspapers continued to support the military regime. In December, the same Magdy El-Galed who would later leave his column blank in protest had ordered the censorship of an op-ed that merely speculated that junior military officers might stage a coup against their superiors. It caused a great stir in the press community and laid bare the multifaceted ways a dictatorship can infect all corners of a society, even its independent press.
In this context, Morsi and the Shura Council’s move to place Brotherhood loyalists in places of authority might be seen as a settling of scores. After sixty years of being attacked brutally by secular, regime friendly journalists, the Brotherhood is taking back its reputation.
Next Steps: Possible New Models for Egyptian Media Ownership
President Morsi’s critics are pointing to his failure to dismantle the structure by which the state appoints editors, but is that fair? While not unimportant, the reform of state media may not be primary among the new leader’s concerns. He also faces a failing economy, a sizable bloc of left-wing Egyptians who will oppose the Brotherhood no matter what it does, and a struggle for power with the military. Morsi and the Brotherhood are grabbing all the power they can get, but the problems of a free press are messier than press freedom advocates usually allow, and the Brotherhood could be doing far worse than enjoying some spoils of victory and prosecuting a man who has called for their leader’s death.
There are also other signs of hope. On February 2nd of this year, the Brotherhood’s spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan published a “proposal for a dialogue on media reform” in Al Ahram (original here, translation here). He lamented the history of Egypt’s press. “In the search for profits and interests, the management and editorial side became subservient to the ownership, which had a negative effect on the independence of these media outlets,” he wrote. “Even if Egyptians are smart by nature and can tell the honest from the dishonest, ‘a bullet that doesn’t hit you is still a nuisance’ (as we say colloquially), just as Goebbels’ theory still applies that people come to believe a lie that is repeated often enough.”
He suggests a radical approach. He believes that policy should dictate that all media outlets are joint-stock companies in which no individual or family owns more than ten percent of the shares. The state-owned outlets should become holding companies or else subdivided. The staff would be offered shares first. Most of all, he thinks, more training is needed for Egyptian journalists. He concludes with a nod to the U.S.: “We still recall the role journalists played in uncovering the Watergate scandal that brought down former U.S. President Richard Nixon.”
Egyptian civil society will long suffer from the mess of corruption and organizational ineptitude left over from Mubarak’s rule. The media, whether on television or in print, serves as a constant and painful reminder. Morsi has a long thaw ahead and is exercising caution. He knows that last time an Egyptian president swept out the old order and optimistically remade society, he set up sixty years of dictatorship.
Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com.
With support from the Henry R. Luce initiative on Religion and International Affairs.