Reflections on Egypt's press
Two pieces about Egypt's current press clampdown are worth reading in light of yesterday's press strike. Egypt: September of discontent by Amira Howeidy puts the pressure on the press in the current political context:
The problem now is that the authorities seem convinced that the private press, especially al Dostour, has more power than the state media machine in influencing public opinion. Otherwise, why would it drag its editor to court every few months in cases that always relate to the president? And why did the official news agency report plans to try him before an emergency court? The authorities later reversed that decision and referred him to a criminal court on 1 October under tight security measures, which adjourned the case to 24 October. Officially, Eissa’s crime is reporting on nation-wide rumours on the president’s health, or even death, in August. And in many ways what we’re witnessing is a crackdown on the independent press and an attempt to muzzle freedom of expression. This is why 18 independent newspapers have agreed not to publish on 7 October in protest.Meanwhile, I'd missed this long post over at Baheyya on The Death of Deference, which analyzes the press from a lot of angles. She recognizes that two personalities, more than anyone else, were responsible for the new oppositional tone of the independent press;
But this isn’t solely about curbing freedom of expression. A quick glance at the bigger picture shows an insecure and aged regime battling for survival through a series of procedures that include silencing the press. If Eissa and his colleagues who face prison sentences end up in jail, they shouldn’t be viewed as only victims of a press massacre, but of a police state consolidating its position.
The two editors who more than any of their peers have created and promoted the contemporary adversarial model of Egyptian journalism are Abdel Halim Qandil and Ibrahim Eissa (though I must also recall the pioneering role of Magdi and Adil Hussein in the early 1990s). Both are consciously engaged in a systematic project of accusing, belittling, and criticising public officials, from the most hapless minister to the most powerful public official, the normally untouchable president. In light of the weakness of parliament and the fragmentation of citizen watchdog groups, both see journalism as a useful tool to extract a modicum of responsiveness from an unaccountable, unchecked imperial presidency. And both aspire to make a profound impact on the wider political culture, replacing existing norms of deference and decorum when addressing the powerful with a style marked by irreverence, profound scepticism, and a blunt, salty style. But though they’re fellow travellers in many ways, Eissa and Qandil come from very different backgrounds and are motivated by different impulses.I would add to that (Baheyya briefly mentions it too) the remarkable supplanting of al-Ahram, the traditional newspaper of record, by al-Masri al-Youm. Now, however, we need another al-Masri al-Youm style newspaper to give it some competition lest it rests on its laurels. That may come soon, because from a professional standpoint things are starting to move in the Egyptian press. A few nights ago I had dinner with a publisher whose newspaper will see light sometime next year; he spoke of creating a "convergence newsroom" with the print edition of the newspaper more organically linked to its web presence. There is yet an Egyptian newspaper who website acts as a forum in the way the al-Arabiya comments section do. The web may still have limited reach, but it can add another layer to the dialogue between readers and newspapermen that has taken place in recent years -- at least while emerging media moguls wait for the day when they can unleash their ferocious journalists onto the terrestrial TV and radio waves.