Press Freedom: A tall order and Egypt falls short [Archives:2006/979/Opinion]

August 7 2006

Taqrir Washington
The United States has long prided itself on enjoying a free press. Freedom House, an organization that measures freedoms worldwide, declared that journalists in the United States work in an environment of complete press freedom, according to its 2005 Map of Press Freedom. In the same year, among Arab countries only parts of Palestine were labeled “free,” while Bahrain, Kuwait, and Lebanon were considered “partly free.” The rest of the Arab world, including Egypt, carry the label “not free.”

The Map of Press Freedom has changed little in the past four years, and Egypt, the Arab world's largest country and the region's cultural leader, has earned the ranking of “not free” since Freedom House began composing a global ranking of press freedoms in 2002.

Why is Egypt consistently in the “not free” category, along with more obviously repressive countries such as Libya, North Korea, and Cuba? On July 26, 2006, the United States -Egypt Friendship Society, a Washington, DC – based non-governmental group dedicated to improving understanding between the two countries, hosted a panel discussion entitled “The Paradox of Press Freedom in Egypt.” The panel consisted of Adel Iskandar, a member of the adjunct faculty at American University in Washington, DC and co-author of a book about the influence of the al-Jazeera satellite channel; Tareq Atiya, the deputy editor of Egypt's English-language al-Ahram Weekly; and Howard Schnieder, the former Washington Post Cairo bureau chief.

Citing an “explosion” in opposition presses operating in Egypt in the last few decades, Adel Iskandar argued that the Egyptian press should not be viewed as a monolithic entity. He divided it into three main categories: government-operated presses; those presses operated by opposition parties; and independent presses beholden to neither the government nor any other political party. The fact that these three groups exist, however, does not mean that Egypt enjoys a free and open press.

Iskandar outlined six essential requirements for the future of press reform in Egypt. These are: ensuring that revised press laws adequately protect the rights of journalists; reevaluating what constitutes journalistic principles, such as the concept of “objectivity,” with the goal of standardizing these principles; the continuing influence of external alternative presses that help the Egyptian readership to appreciate the difference between constructive criticism of the country and slandering it; the diminishing of “media schizophrenia,” in which people witness certain circumstances and events in their lives that are not touched upon by the media; the continued urging for press reforms by members of the press themselves; and the continued pressure on Egyptian authorities that stems from international expectations of greater accountability and transparency from the government.

For his part, Tareq Atia began his remarks by dividing the current Egyptian media into six categories, as opposed to Iskandar's three. These include: the government-operated presses, such as al-Ahram, al-Akhbar, and al-Gomhurriya; the independent dailies, such as al-Masry al-Yawm, which simultaneously provide government and opposition opinions on a given issue; the weekly independent papers, such as al-Dustur and Sawt al-Umma, which take up subjects other papers consider taboo; the satellite channels, which compel newspaper editorialists to keep up with the often-stinging political critiques they offer; the online-only news media, such as Fi-al-Bilad and Masrawy, which cater to “news junkies;” and weblogs, which oftentimes serve as media watchdogs despite their low readership levels.

According to Atia, changes in the Egyptian press will occur mainly within the parameters of a business model, in which those papers which consistently operate at a financial loss will slowly fade from the scene. Atia warns that the disintegration of these papers may take longer than has been hoped by many observers.

Despite the slow pace of change, he discerns a distinct shift in the focus of the Egyptian media as a whole, which he argues has begun to pay more attention to the desires of Egyptian readers. Atia says that this trend can be observed in the fact that the Egyptian media has become more service-oriented, providing more useful information such as financial recommendations and real estate reviews.

He suggested that Egyptian journalism would benefit enormously from a greater focus on both investigative and literary journalism, the latter categorized by in-depth and detailed coverage of a partucular topic.

Both Iskandar and Atia cited the opposition of Egyptian journalists to a law that was passed on July 10 of this year that criminalized the publication of information regarding the financial dealings of Egyptian government officials. Both argued that the outcry from journalists, including a 24-hour freeze in which more than 20 newspapers refused to publish, resulted in the intervention of President Hosni Mubarak, who removed the offending clause forbidding reporting on government officials.

Iskandar and Atia sounded another positive note with regard to the press coverage of Egypt's last presidential elections.

Atia pointed to the fact that the Egyptian press was required to provide equal media coverage to all of the presidential candidates in the run-up to the election, though he admitted that ultimately Mubarak received the greatest coverage. Iskandar observed that, despite its unchallenged domination of the Egyptian media, Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party spent much time and energy engineering a glitzy and appealing election campaign for the first time in history.

For his part, Howard Schneider approached the discussion of the Egyptian media from a more skeptical angle. He argued that increasing press freedom for Egyptian journalists would amount to little without the existence of a stringently enforced public information law that would enable journalists, or any other citizen for that matter, to access information that is currently off-limits.

Such information includes the details of ruling individuals' financial status, the financial and tax records of state-owned corporations, and the basic break-down of the Egyptian government's annual budget. Schneider insisted that a large gap separates a situation in which a journalist is merely immune from arrest from a situation in which a journalist has access to public information provided by transparent, accountable government agencies.

Ultimately, all three panelists came to a foregone conclusion – press freedom in Egypt has been and remains a paradox.

While some positive developments have taken place recently, particularly with regard to the press coverage of the 2005 legislative and presidential elections, meaningful reform and development will depend on a host of factors, but first and foremost will rely on the active engagement of Egyptian journalists demanding the freedom to access and report information and stories of significance to the Egyptian people.