New Egypt, new media

 
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 By Osama Diab

Egyptians will no longer tolerate paying for the state-run newspapers that peddled Hosni Mubarak’s propaganda.

Saturday 26 March 2011

A few hours before the ousting of the former president Hosni Mubarak, the Tahrir Square protesters were described in Egypt‘s state-run media as “vandals” and “hooligans”. A few hours after Mubarak’s fall, the “vandalisers” had become “heroes”, and what was previously described as “chaos instigated by foreign powers” had suddenly become “a glorious revolution”.

None of this impresses young Egyptians who – unlike older generations – have become accustomed to seeking out more neutral sources of information. They are increasingly fluent in alternative media, whether it’s social media such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, or the newly emerging independent newspapers that suffered under the former regime and are seen as one of the reasons behind the 25 January revolution.

Sales of state-run papers have fallen quite drastically – partly because of the growth in independent media but also because of the way they sugar-coated Mubarak’s unpopular regime. One of the more outrageous examples came last September when al-Ahram doctored a photograph taken during the Israel-Palestine peace talks in Washington to suggest that 82-year-old Mubarak was leading the negotiations.

The most loyal readers of the state-run press come from older generations who have a nostalgic attachment. Meanwhile, the young people who now represent the majority of the market prefer independent media – even foreign media such as the BBC, al-Jazeera and The Guardian – to get a more accurate picture.

There are no reliable circulation figures for the state-run press in Egypt. Rafik Bassel, a media analyst and chief executive of Smartcomm advertising agency, says al-Ahram claims a circulation of 800,000 on weekdays and 1,000,000 on Fridays. He doubts this claim and suggests the real figure is 140,000 on weekdays of which 40,000 are subscriptions paid for by the government and distributed to officials around the country.

“Advertising in state-run newspapers has been mandatory for businesses close to the previous regime,” Bassel added. “Large companies, banks and services were ordered to publish ads … not to mention obituaries, ‘congratulation’ ads, etc.”

Mostafa Sakr, the chairman and editor of the independent al-Borsa daily (who used to work for al-Ahram‘s economic magazine) told me that not only has the circulation of all state-run newspapers plunged seriously, but their influence has declined too. According to Sakr, people want sources of information they can trust – which is why sales of the independent newspaper al-Shorouk doubled during the revolution, reaching a circulation of about 150,000 a day.

Even in the online world, independent media have proved more successful. Al-Youm al-Sabea news website was named as the Middle East’s top online newspaper by Forbes. Al-Ahram, the highest-ranking state-run newspaper on the list, came in 24th place.

Economically speaking, these increasingly unpopular media outlets have become a financial burden on the Egyptian treasury. Taxpayers were paying the regime to provide them with lies and propaganda. A report from the Central Auditing Agency in 2008 accused Rose al-Youssef newspaper of wasting public money, since 74% of its printed copies were returned unsold, making its actual sales less than 2,500 a day. Rose al-Youssef, like many other state-run media, has a long and proud history that was severely polluted by its affiliation to unpopular, corrupt regimes.

The future situation of these outlets is still unclear. However, the supreme council of armed forces, which is in charge of Egypt until a new president is elected in August, has ordered the dissolution of the information ministry – something the opposition had long been calling for. The ministry was regarded as the government’s means for controlling the media and limiting its freedom.

Many journalists have also demonstrated at the syndicate of journalists, calling for the dismantling of the higher council of journalism, a government body controlled by parliament which is in charge of – and owns – Egypt’s seven state-funded newspapers.

Whatever the future of these publications, the status quo should not be an option. Some of these papers, such as Rose al-Youssef, circulate in the low thousands and get funding in the tens of millions. With new, independent, credible and economically successful models of newspapers, the state-run press should be something of the past.

If they can be made profitable they should probably be privatised so they can break free from the government’s grip and develop a more independent tone. If they cannot be profitable (which is more likely) then there is no reason for them to stay and be the burden they are. “If the state stops funding [its] newspapers, they will collapse in a heartbeat,” Bassel said.

Egyptians have long paid a huge bill to be told lies. It’s time to do something more with this money. The era of communist-style propaganda is over in Egypt and the disparity between the content provided by state-run and independent newspapers has already narrowed since the fall of Mubarak’s regime.

Starting a new era in Egypt should come with a new set of media practices and allow trusted names to lead a less stagnant media scene, replacing newspapers whose editorial policies were developed secretly in state security offices on presidential orders.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 10 March 2011. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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