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What’s Next for Egyptian Newspapers?

February 22, 2011

Reading the news in Cairo--on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just down from Tahrir Square, in fact.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the evolution of the state newspaper Al Ahram in the face of the democratic revolution. The same day, the Saudi-owned news website Elaph reported on the same topic, arguing that as Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East.

The writer for Elaph argues that media in the Arab world generally have lacked transparency and served as voices for the various regimes. In Egypt since the ouster of Mubarak, government newspapers have become bolder and more honest, and that this is an unprecedented historic evolution.

Elaph quoted the Arab League’s Mohammad al-Dali as saying, “When I read the pages of Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar now, I see that they reflect reality in all transparency. This is a very important change that will act as an essential element in development. Journalism will indeed become the fourth estate, a monitoring authority…”

“What happened in Egypt will have repercussions on other countries, which will lead to the development of the region,” al-Dali said. “This will serve the interests of the Arab people, and perhaps the interest of the ruling sides as well, as these must evolve with the events.”

The web site also quoted Elhami al-Miligi, an Al-Ahram journalist as saying that the many rules and restraints that restrict journalistic practice remain technically in place. They need to be reworked.

If anything, this is an understatement. The entire structure of journalism is designed to make newspapers an arm of the state. Will the new Egypt need a Ministry of Information to manage news at a cabinet level? Will it need a General Body for Information to supervise what should and shouldn’t be said? Is the Office of the Foreign Correspondents still necessary to grant and revoke press passes to international correspondents?

Until now, chief editors of national newspapers are appointed by the Higher Journalism Council, headed by the Minister of Information. Newspaper directors have been appointed by the president–which is to say by the security apparatus.

And if the state is not not controlling the journalists, will it continue to fund the national newspapers? Should they be funded as a public good (but with less direct state oversight), or should they be privatized?

While these questions remain unanswered, al-Milagi told Elaph that most journalists are just ignoring the old rules. “In light of the [recent] events … journalists now are not placing a limit on themselves, and they are practicing freedom to the maximum,” he said.

From Fox News to the Qatar Tribune to the Huffington Post to Al Jazeera it’s been popular since Jan. 25th to trot out the old saying, “As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East.” If al-Dali, al-Miligi and the anonymous writer for Elaph are right, that could be a very good thing where news media are concerned.

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