A knack for the exclusive non-interview

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Belgian magazine Knack did something shocking, brilliant, or lazy… depending on how you look at it.

Thursday 4 October 2012

The Flemish-language weekly has published a Q&A with Bart De Wever, a Flemish politician and popular TV personality, thanks to his successful run on the quiz show De Slimste Mens Ter Wereld (The World’s Smartest Person), and more recently for his amazing transformation from chubby leader of the Flemish nationalist NV-A party to slim Antwerp mayoral candidate in next week’s elections. Oh, and he just published a book about his miraculous diet.

Magazines interview celebrities, politicians, actors, etc. because people want to hear what they have to say. There is nothing outlandish about that.  But on this occasion Knack ran a cover story promoting an interview that never happened!

In a short introduction to the story, the editors explain that De Wever was asked a couple of times to answer some questions but was just too busy – or, as implied, ‘too important’ – to find the time. So, the publication was probably faced with a rotten choice. Ditch the cover story, then scramble to adjust the flat plan (the content structure), find a replacement story, and may be even adjust the advertising line-up.  In a weekly magazine, that would be a nightmare scenario.

Or do what Knack clearly decided to do … run the story anyway. Run with what? You rightly ask. They published the article with a full-page photo of the new-look De Wever in his freshly tailored pin-striped suit, followed by a spread with the Q&A in the usual format Knack: Blah blah followed by De Wever:  Blah blah. Except in place of De Wever’s responses, they wrote ‘No answer’ or something to that effect. It’s a gimmick, sure, but a brilliant one if you think about it. They got to keep their cover story, reinforce their reputation as an edgy political publication and … well … take the piss out of De Wever for being too arrogant, it would seem, to answer their journalist’s requests for an interview.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. The way it was presented made it seem like he chose not to answer, which in media terms always smells of hiding something. Public relations experts insist that spokespeople never say ‘no answer’ or ‘no comment’ for that reason. Whether De Wever actively chose not to answer or just genuinely didn’t have the time or interest to appear in Knack for the nth time is, of course, irrelevant because the result is the same.

The fallout from the story, including resignations at the magazine and political intrigue, runs in concentric circles. Observers of the Flemish media told me that the journalist seemed to be just trying to make a name for himself with this trick, that a good journalist would have tried harder to reach De Wever or his people. There is an election going on, after all, and De Wever is busy promoting his book to boot. Others wonder how any politician would pass up a potential cover story in a major weekly (with a print run of around 130,000 copies), let alone one who has shown in the past to have a strong nose for publicity.

Alternatively, it could all simply have been a mix up, a classic communications breakdown. This is the way NV-A would want the incident to be remembered. The party posted what the answers to Knack’s questions would have been had they been given more time to reply – to show they had nothing to hide, presumably.

Is this incident a shocking piece of PR, lazy journalism, or a brilliant stunt which shows that the print media is not going to give in to the digital upstarts without a fight? You be the judge.

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Striving for imperfection

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The subtext of the bestselling novel, The Imperfectionists, is elusive… But could it have something to do with the imperfections of modern Western society?

Wednesday 25 April 2012

The New York Times describes Tom Rachman’s bestseller, The Imperfectionists, as “nothing short of spectacular”. It’s a big rap for the former journalist’s debut novel, but much deserved. Problem is, I can’t work out who or what is supposed to be imperfect. Perhaps it’s me.

I guess I’m struggling with the subtext of the story, or perhaps there simply isn’t one. The book is really an ensemble of mini-stories brought together through eleven characters and their association with a declining English-language newspaper. The parallels with Europe’s own ignoble slide and that of the traditional print media are certainly hard to ignore as candidate ‘subtexts’.

Rachman appears to have erected a Dorian Gray-esque full-length mirror in which we – the reader, old Europe, print journalism… – get to see every wrinkle, every inadequacy, every (hidden) imperfection.

The Impefectionists is a splendid original, filled with wit and structured so ingeniously that figuring out where the author is headed is half the reader’s fun,” writesTimes.

‘Fun’ isn’t the word I’d choose to describe the reader’s journey, but to each their own. But I do agree that it is quite ingeniously crafted, and I love how each new character is parachuted in from the first words and seamlessly brought in line with the wider storyline before landing beautifully.

While I would happily reel off a number of other book review-ish observations, I feel more compelled to draw out this baffling subtext question. And after reading the feature story, entitled ‘The French Disconnection’, in this week’s Time magazine I get the definite scent of a lead.

Talking about the French Presidential candidates’ inability to connect with the country’s disenfranchised people, the article cites a “wildly popular” pamphlet, entitled Indignez-Vous! (Time for outrage!), written by French writer, diplomat and World War II resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel.

Hessel exhorts France, in particular its youth, to “recapture the spirit that fuelled the war-time resistance of the Nazis and mount a ‘peaceful insurrection’ against injustice, ‘mass consumption, the disdain of the weak and of culture, general amnesia and the endless competition of all against all’”.

The pamphlet basically rails against the sort of “populist appeals” not, according to Time, witnessed in half a century in France. One might equally say these populist – and in parts right-leaning politics – are not exclusive to France, as highlighted in The Chronikler’s spotlight on the far right. The economic and social strains facing Europe today embolden populist and right-wing rhetoric.

“What’s new and unusual [compared to the extreme-right rhetoric of the past in France] is that that rhetoric has become mainstream. In the process, it reveals a lot about the unsettled state of France today, a country that feels victimised by a changing world, economically stagnant and poorly governed,” observes Time.

To my mind, this statement could just as easily be applied to Greece, Spain, Portugal and lastly Italy, the fictional home to Rachman’s dying newspaper.

Founded in Rome in the 1950s, the paper rides the post-war internationalisation of Europe and manages to build a strong and loyal readership. But like its host nation, and arguably the wider region, the hapless paper misses opportunities to modernise and innovate. It struggles to find meaning and value in global society.

There is also perhaps a touch of irony in that the newspaper is owned and run by Americans – a nation that values and usually successfully capitalises on just such opportunities.

Could this be the imperfection implied in Rachman’s title? How can this band of outcast American journalists and editors strive for perfection in such an imperfect setting?

Let me off the hook, will you … read the book and tell me know who the imperfectionists are!

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Revolution@1: The Egyptian revolution as a historical event

 
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By Osama Diab

In the social media age, revolutions will no longer be followed by the constructing of a national identity based on just one “universal” truth.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Recognising the importance of producing a grassroots, street-level media by the people and for the people, a group called Kazeboon (Liars) was founded following the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution to record the human rights violations committed by the security forces. They use simple citizen journalism tools, such as camera phones, and equipped with a projector, they roam the streets of the nation to screen the films they make in order to, in their own words, “keep the balance of truth”.

As a counter move, a group called Sadiqoon (Honest) was founded to project a positive image of the military police and try to prove by film that violence was carried out by protesters.

These two rival projects reflect divisive sentiments and narratives that are common in Egypt and are splitting the population. But which of these narratives, and many more, will actually make it into the history books remains the interesting question.

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and sociologist, argues that the winners in any social or political struggle use their newly acquired political power to suppress the defeated’s alternative account of events. But do governments still have the luxury to suppress opposing narratives in the age of social media?

The historiographical approach to documenting major social and political transformations and the introduction of a new order differ quite considerably from one time to another, and from place to place. Pierre Nora, the French historian, explains that one approach is constructing a unified standard version of “what happened” in order to promote a unified national identity and social cohesion where the nation usually end up having a standard language, national holidays, etc. This approach was mainly predominant in the UK and France. However, in the United States, a large country with various traditions, the approach to writing history allows for more diversity and a wide range of narratives to emerge.

The construction of a unified national identity which Nora refers to requires the existence of a centralised media apparatus, usually government-owned, which sends a standard message to all the citizens of a nation. However, this is a fading phenomenon all over the world due to globalisation and the emergence of decentralised media. This means that it is getting increasingly hard for any government to have total control over the means of producing media and culture.

In the United States, some of the history and even the visual culture that emerged from the Civil War, was written by the defeated (the Southerners). Popular Hollywood box office hits, such as Cold Mountain and Gone with the Wind all tell the story of the civil war from a Southern perspective. In addition, even though the USA didn’t ‘win’ the Vietnam war, most films about Vietnam are American.

The openness and freedom of the American media, along with its diverse tradition, is probably what allows it more than other nations to present different and sometimes conflicting narratives and accounts without awakening the fear that this might affect national identity or social cohesion.

The Egyptian revolution is one of the first major political and historical transformations to be driven by online activism, but most importantly, this online activism still cast its shadow on how people want their revolution to be remembered, and there seems to be no consensus on the matter.

The so-called Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular are perfect examples of when diverse interpretations become inevitable in the age of digital media and open access to information. Arab countries are a good example because they have always been under authoritarian rule, with the media, culture and history traditionally under tight government control. Even though the new media and the information era have been covered quite intensively as the driving force behind the Arab revolutions, little has been said about the way it might affect how these revolutions, important historical events in their own right, might be remembered by future generations.

Even governmental attempts to document and archive the revolution are very wary of the sensitivity surrounding official accounts of what happened. The National Archive of Egypt appointed the head of the history department at the American Univeristy in Cairo, Khaled Fahmy, to take charge of its project to document and archive the revolution.

Fahmy is well aware of the challenge he faces. He pointed out in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that Egyptians are highly sensitive about official attempts to write history and create state-sponsored narratives about historical events. “When Hosni Mubarak was vice-president in the 1970s he was himself on a government committee tasked with writing – or rather rewriting – the history of the 1952 revolution to suit the political purposes of the elite at that time,” said Fahmy.

Fahmy, therefore, is attempting to only collect as much primary data as possible without trying to impose a certain narrative and leave it to the people, especially future generations, to construct their own narratives about the revolution and its period. Fahmy also makes it clear that, since the revolution was leaderless and decentralised, this should also be our approach to writing its history and accessing it. There are also a few other organised non-governmental attempts to document and archive the revolution by the Bibliotheca Alexandria, American University in Cairo students and alumni, and others.

The fact that the revolution was leaderless makes it a politically sensitive topic. Many factions seem to be fighting to claim ownership of the revolution and attempt to emphasise and stretch their role in it.

A power struggle has emerged in post-revolutionary Egypt to try and fill this power vacuum. Claiming ownership of the revolution and fighting the old regime is central to this power struggle. This dispute is expected to cast its shadow over the writing of the revolution’s history and help further diversify the narratives and interpretations of the events which are taking place.

The media play an important role in constructing national identity to the extent that some argue that nationalism as we know it did not exist before the invention of the printing press, which enabled the emergence of the first mass media. Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities argues that the emergence of print led to the emergence of nationalism because it helped members of a nation ‘imagine’ and identify with a wider community with which they shared no direct contact.

Referred to sometimes as history’s first Facebook revolution, tthe role of social media continues even after the revolution and is causing fragmentation in society, as well as difficulties for the new political leadership to construct a new and unified national identity. More importantly, it is causing a diversity of historical narratives to emerge, not just about the recent revolution but also abut older historical events in which certain narratives were suppressed and swept under the carpet.

However, over time, it might be proven that nationalism and social cohesion are not necessarily linked to having only one version of the ‘truth’ while suppressing all the other versions. Future generations are likely to grow up surrounded by a whole range of historical and political narratives thanks to the decentralisation of media production. On the bright side, this phenomenon might promote tolerance and enhance people’s ability to coexist and accept difference.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

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Walking on the moon in Ramallah

 
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By Ben Hartman

As an Israeli and a Jew, Ramallah once seemed to be as distant as outer space. So joining the crowds celebrating the Palestinian UN bid was like a small step for a man but a giant leap for my mind.

Friday 30 September 2011

The scene in al-Manara Square in Ramallah last Friday night was electrifying and fascinating, mainly for the feeling that you were witnessing history, even if it is history that may turn out to be of no consequence whatsoever.

The Palestinian Authority-orchestrated celebrations before and after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the UN went off without a hitch, and for the most part there appeared to be a rather restrained and harmless celebratory mood.

Ramallah first entered my lexicon following the October 2000 lynching of IDF reservists Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami in a police station in the city. The images from that day are still among the most iconic of the second intifada: a Palestinian man brandishing his blood-soaked hands to the mobs below, the battered dead body of a reservist being tossed out of the station window and instantly swarmed, beaten, and mutilated.

Even though that incident was followed by scores of bombings and shooting attacks with much higher death tolls, the lynching remains for Israelis one of the most traumatic events of the second intifada, and for many, a “where were you when you heard” moment.

The fact that the two soldiers died such horrible deaths simply for taking a wrong turn seared into my mind the lethal danger of finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time in Israel and the West Bank, and the realisation that such a mistake could result in cruel and certain death in an instant.

Back then, walking on the moon seemed more likely than strolling through Ramallah. The entire West Bank was for me a black hole, no-go zone populated only by settlers, the Israeli army, and Palestinians, all of whom could have been located in outer space for all that they affected my life.
Today, I still wouldn’t walk around Ramallah or any other Palestinian city and say I am Israeli or Jewish, and would make sure no Hebrew passed over my lips. Nonetheless, there seems to be some psychic barrier that has lifted and Ramallah, East Jerusalem, and other Palestinian areas no longer seem to be the sum of all fears 11 years later.

In addition to the almost complete cessation of Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and within the Green Line, much of my sense of security has come with working in journalism. When I’m working I tend to feel a certain sense of impunity, and that I have an ironclad excuse to be where I’m not known and not wanted. A press card doesn’t make you bulletproof or invisible, but having one does seem to have helped me break down the barrier of fear in my own mind and allow me to walk (somewhat) more freely in places I never ventured before. Along the way, I’ve found myself filling in dozens of my blind spots between the river and the sea, most of them Palestinian, but also Israeli.

At the risk of sounding like an Orientalist, I’ve learned in the past couple years that there is something strangely seductive and fascinating to me about visiting or passing through Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank. Even the remote and thoroughly boring areas of the West Bank bear an attraction.

It is the realisation that you can drive such a short distance from Tel Aviv and enter what is, with or without the statehood bid, a thoroughly foreign entity, an area that is so completely Palestinian and so entirely not us. It’s also the very real awareness that regardless of how much you may or may not support Israel or identify as a Zionist, that there is, to some extent, a foreign nation within the area we control. In Ramallah, Palestine’s largest and most lively city (other than East Jerusalem) the awareness of this foreign nationality is even more apparent.

I don’t know what I make of the Palestinian statehood bid, and I’d rather not express any sort of opinion whatsoever about who is more to blame for the current impasse. Still, even though Mahmoud Abbas couldn’t bring himself to mention Jewish ties to the Holy Land in his speech before the UN and the Palestinian people, and without being able to predict how the statehood bid will turn out, I’m encouraged by the fact that the Palestinian leadership is pursuing the diplomatic path over violence.

When I think of last Friday, I’ll be able to say I witnessed this particular chapter of the world’s most intractable conflict, a conflict that has left nearly everyone involved almost completely jaded by its routine cycle of violence and failed peace talks. Whatever happens as a result of this chapter, it’s one of the rare international media events dealing with this conflict that (so far) did not include violence or failed negotiations in Maryland.

Last Friday, it felt good to walk on the moon in Ramallah and return to earth in Tel Aviv later that same night.

 

Read more in the special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

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‘Redheads under the bed’ as a substitute for good reporting

 
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By Christian Nielsen

 A story that redhead sperm is not welcome at a Danish spermbank has gone global, reflecting how good reporting is being crowded out of the media by ‘incredible free content’.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

A Danish sperm bank, reportedly the largest ‘supplier’ in the world, has started turning down redheaded donors due to lack of demand for their sperm, according to UK daily The Telegraph last week. “There are too many redheads in relation to demand,” the sperm bank’s director was reported as saying by Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet.

The Australian daily The Age chimed in with its follow-up under the homepage teaser: “Sperm bank bans ‘ranga’ deposits”. The article’s subtle chastisement of “Europe” – presumably because Denmark happens to be on that continent – for such discriminatory treatment of redheads is a joke in a country – call it Australasia since it’s in that region – where redheads are routinely ridiculed, as elsewhere. Surely, the title of the story gives Australia’s own prejudices away. “Ranga” is a derogatory term for redheads which (presumably) comes from ‘Orang Utan’ due to the ape’s famous reddish locks.

In a story I wrote about discrimination against redheads for The Chronikler last year (“Not so simply red“), I neglected to include this term as one of the many that redheads are unfairly saddled with. The Age seems to have corrected that omission for me.

Actually, the worldwide reporting of this Danish story is a typical example of how the media works nowadays. A local story which appears in Denmark on 13 August is retrofitted by a major UK paper, in this case The Telegraph, which in turn inspires another English-speaking daily, The Age, to do its own take on the story. But if you go back to the so-called source, Ekstra Bladet, you can see that it is attributing Newspaq as the source of the story and quotes.

Where is the reporting in that? Who’s checking facts? The bottom-line in today’s media underscores one irrefutable fact: real journalists and reporters are being crowded out by ‘incredible free content’. Reporting and news is being replaced by syndicated content, newswires, and ready-made PR material produced by the growing body of ‘communicators’ hired to get their employers into the news. It’s working. The facts have become secondary to what can only be called a ‘too-good-to-be-true’ easy story.   

 

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A tale of two media

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s independent media have earned their revolutionary stripes, while the state’s mouthpieces have simply switched allegiance to the ‘new emperor’. But which model will endure?

Wednesday 17 August 2011

In his final 18 days as president, Hosni Mubarak looked increasingly detached from the rapidly changing reality around him. The contrast between the gilded cocoon in which he lived and the seething anger on the streets was perhaps most dramatically illustrated by his final speech.

The whole of Egypt was out on the streets or glued to their television sets – as were millions across the world – in excited anticipation that the dictator would finally concede defeat on February 10. When he appeared on air, a couple of hours late, he delivered a recorded message that was a study in mediocrity and cliché.

With the pallor of a made-up corpse in an ill-lit funeral parlour, he paid lip service to Egypt’s youth – whom he patronisingly referred to as his “sons and daughters” – but defiantly refused to step down, claiming that he would not succumb to “foreign dictations”. In Tahrir square, this was met with cries of disbelief, hoots of derision and quite a number of raised shoes.

A similar contrast in narratives was discernible in how the revolution was being covered by the Egyptian media. While intrepid journalists working for Egypt’s independent media continued their ever-bolder defiance of the regime of recent years to report on the historic events gripping the country, the regime’s tame mouthpieces mostly continued, right up to the eleventh hour of Mubarak’s downfall, to describe the protesters as “hooligans” and the protests themselves as being orchestrated by “foreign powers”.

This awoke memories in the minds of some commentators of the public media’s disgraceful performance during the 1967 war with Israel, when they broadcast fictitious reports of Egyptian victories until the bitter reality emerged a few days later.

“With the revolution in full force, few thought the state’s toothless and incompetent television would actually revert to Voice of the Arabs strategies of completely fraudulent reports of the protests,” wrote media scholar Adel Iskandar in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s best-selling independent daily. “In retrospect, the content from those 18 days has since become iconic – from fake foreign-trained protesters and KFC conspiracies to an empty Tahrir and massive pro-Mubarak rallies.”

Sawt el-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) was the Nasser-era pan-Arabist revolutionary broadcaster which was, despite it clear propaganda mission, was popular with millions of Egyptian and Arabs up until the 1967 defeat. In the early weeks of the current revolution, the state media reverted to old form with ludicruous reports that the protesters on Tahrir Square were only a handful of foreigners and foreign-trained agents whose allegiance was allegedly bought with buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, despite the fact that the KFC restaurant on the square was closed down at the start of the protests and a makeshift clinic to treat protesters was erected outside it.

In a comically transparent real-life adaptation of Orwell’s “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia”, the state-owned media now endorses the revolution – and the vandals have become heroes.

Despite this, old ways die hard. “On the whole, I would say the changes we’ve seen to the ‘end product’ of the Egyptian media have been largely cosmetic – although that doesn’t mean that more substantive reform isn’t underway below the surface,” The Guardian‘s Jack Shenker told me.

“There has been no meaningful change in the state media since the revolution,” echoes Amira Mohsen, a young journalist who used to work for Nile TV, the state-owned satellite news channel. “It would appear that the self-censorship that had always been in place still exists and has only switched to suit the requirements of the new [military] regime.”

After two years at Nile TV, Mohsen resigned last September, months before the revolution, out of outrage, at the endemic corruption, nepotism and propaganda she witnessed at the broadcaster, she said.

“I was exhausted and disgusted by the level of corruption taking place at all levels in Maspero [the Nile-side premises of Egypt’s broadcasting building],” she explained. “I also felt Egyptian state media was not journalism but rather working as public relations for the regime.”

While defections of journalists disillusioned with the state-run media, like Mohsen’s, have long occurred, the trickle only became a flood in the wake of the revolution.

“For decades, conscientious media workers had suffered in silence as failed and corrupt government policies were promoted across the airwaves and in print,” wrote Salah Abdel Maqsoud, who replaced Mubarak loyalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed as interim secretary-general of the Egyptian Journalists’ Union, in the Guardian in February. “Therefore, when the revolution erupted journalists were among the first on the street and among those who gave blood for the cause.”

In addition to resignations, strikes and walkouts across the state-run broadcast and print media, at least one government-employed journalist paid for reporting on the revolution with his life. Ahmed Mahmoud, a photographer with the largest government newspaper, al-Ahram, was shot in the head while filming police attacking protesters from the balcony of his home.

Prior to the revolution, the state-owned media was not uniformly propagandist, and certain journalists on the government’s payroll sailed very close to the wind. One example is al-Ahram Weekly under the editorship of Hani Shukrallah. As it is published in English and hence does not reach a mass Egyptian audience, the regime kept less of a close eye on it.

But Shukrallah’s bold editorial approach eventually got his superiors within the Ahram conglomerate nervous and he was removed from the Weekly in 2005. He recently returned to head up the newspaper’s new English portal in which he has infused his trademark outspokenness. For instance, weeks before the revolution, when a church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Eve, he penned his very own J’accuse.

“I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them,” he wrote. “But most of all, I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us; those who’ve been growing more and more prejudiced.”

Another example is Salama Ahmed Salama, Egypt’s archetypal non-partisan journalist, despite having worked for decades for al-Ahram, whose front page was dominated for most of the past three decades with Mubarak’s image.

Although he accepted that the newspaper he dedicated so many years to was the “façade of the system”, he is a strong believer in press freedom and tested the system constantly until he left the government flagship to help set up the highly respected independent al-Shorouk. “The reader will get a different taste of modern journalism,” Salama promised in his first editorial for the upstart paper in 2009.

And it seems to have kept its word.

“I think that al-Shorouk is the most professional and objective newspaper on the market in Egypt,” says Mohsen. Unlike some of the other independent Egyptian newspapers, especially the opposition ones, which are clearly partisan or sensationalist, al-Shorouk does not shy away from complexity or controversy, but, like Salama himself, it steers clear of political allegiances and polemics, even in the wake of the revolution. 

But al-Shorouk is not alone, and nor was Egypt’s newfound media freedom built in a day. One of the first newspapers to push the political boundaries to their limit was the opposition al-Dustour, which was set up in 1995 by Ibrahim Eissa in Cyprus, due to Egypt’s restrictive press laws at the time. The government banned the outspoken and oft-sensationalist ‘foreign’ paper in 1998 but it managed to resurface again in 2005.

The growing boldness of Egyptian civil society and the opposition movement has been mirrored in the independent media which, in recent years, has slaughtered most of Egypt’s sacred political cows. For example, the unspoken journalistic taboos which forbade, above all, open criticism of Mubarak in the media was demolished by an increasingly iconoclastic press which openly criticised the then president for refusing to step down, covered rumours of his ill-health and expressed its opposition to Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency from his father.

So successful has the independent media been that al-Masry al-Youm, which was launched in 2004, quickly overtook the stagnant al-Ahram to become Egypt’s most popular and respected newspaper whose official circulation figures may be a little lower than the government flagship but its actual readership is far higher, according to numerous independent experts. And despite an internet blackout and animosity from the collapsing regime in the early days of the revolution, the more open atmosphere has been good for the independent press. For example, al-Shorouk saw its circulation double to reach 150,000 copies in the first weeks of the uprising.

Although private television, which the government kept on a tight lead, was years behind the printed press, it has come into its own over the past few months. Private channels have developed a niche in prime-time talk shows with key figures in the revolution. One such interview, with Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who set up a Facebook page which helped facilitate the revolution, became so iconic that it is credited with giving the revolution a “shot of adrenaline in the heart”, according to Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy, at a moment of deadlock when it looked at risk of losing steam.

And state-run broadcasters have not been immune to this trend. “Amr Khaled and Mohamed ElBaradei on state TV. Regular phone-ins from the ‘revolutionary youth’,” observes Shenker. “There is a broadening of the parameters of debate, that’s undeniable.”

So, what does the future hold for Egypt’s media? It is difficult to say and a lot depends on the kind of Egypt which emerges from the ruins of the former regime. On the positive side, Egyptian journalists are enjoying perhaps unprecedented freedoms and a new freedom of information bill which is currently in the pipeline could empower them to do their jobs better.

However, a number of clouds loom on the horizon. One is the self-censorship practised by some journalists weary of getting into a confrontation with Egypt’s de facto interim rulers, the oft-fearsome Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). “The notion of a benign, paternalistic deity at the apex of Egyptian politics remains, except in place of Mubarak we now have SCAF,” reflects Shenker. “And the mindless repetition of regressive narratives designed to delegitimise those who challenge that deity… continues as well, in the realms of both state and private media.”

Although headless, Egypt’s formidable propaganda apparatus is still largely intact. Many Egyptians have called for the complete dismantling of the Ministry of Information and the State Information Service, as well as for the removal of subsidies to the state-owned media.

However, Egyptians should be wary of private ownership too, which is not always beneficial, as the News International scandal in the UK and US is proving. The revolution provides Egyptians with a golden opportunity to learn from their own mistakes and those of the West to redefine the media landscape in a way that promotes truly free journalism.

Government media subsidies can be kept in place but should be channelled through a firewall which ensures independence, while private media should be encouraged, as much as possible, to be set up through non-interfering trusts and foundations.

“Kalam garayed” (“newspaper speak”) has long been a derisive term in Egypt which reflects the intuitive distrust in which Egyptian hold the media. Perhaps in the wake of the tumultuous changes gripping the country, future generations will seek “kalam garayed” as a positive thing.

This is the extended version of an article which was first published by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 12 August 2011.

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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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From numbers to narratives

 
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Nikolaj Nielsen

Most journalists dread crunching data. But finding narratives among the numbers is part of journalism’s mandate. Luckily, there are tools to help.

27 August 2010

Mirko Lorenz, who organised a recent data-driven journalism event through the European Journalism Centre (ECJ), believes data-driven journalism may be the future. Lorenz explained that being able to visualise filtered data alongside a good story could provide an invaluable service to the public good.

Is this really the next big thing or is it just hubris? Another miracle fix to the glum outlook of journalism? Perhaps saving journalism (and the public’s trust in the profession) requires going back to the basics of a good, well thought out, and structured story telling based on compelling research.  Take Florence Nightingale. In 1858, she produced a coxcomb graph showing how more soldiers died of sickness in the Crimean War than on the battlefield. The UK Sanitary Commission subsequently improved hygiene in both military camps and hospitals. In other words, data-driven journalism is not new. And neither is good storytelling.

Nonetheless, we are faced with an information overload that makes it almost impossible to single-handedly understand what is happening. What if Wikileaks had sent you its 75 000 + documents? Both The New York Times and The Guardian had three weeks to sift through files. The Guardian’s datablog was then able to create a graphical representation of the war logs. These were then linked to the articles. It’s great stuff. But not everyone is so lucky.

Wikileaks is an exceptional case. Most often journalists have to deal with one or several unstructured excel spreadsheets, text files and pdfs. Sensitive information on budgets are, for instance, often wrangled from some official who will then typically present the data in an unstructured manner. Trying to sift through hundreds of thousands of  data sets is an exercise that taxes limited resources and takes too much time. How can one possibly make sense of a text file with millions of figures? And what exactly is one looking for?

“Always question government stats,” says Financial Times investigative journalist, Cynthia O’Murchu, adding that data is rarely user friendly. Ms O’Murchu, who was present at the EJC conference, expressed her frustration at having first to clean data before any attempt to decipher it.   Even getting access is a quest. She demonstrated how her request to obtain UK government data through the Freedom of Information Act would come with a GBP3,400 price tag and months of delay. Information is not so free, after all.

Another tactic used by government officials is to dump massive amounts of unstructured raw data. This is known as data dumping, an exercise that New York Times interactive news technology whiz, Alan McLean, said not only fails to inform but is also distracting. Thankfully, there exist a number of free online tools that claim to make reading and finding narratives in data much easier:

Lippmannian device

Richard Rogers, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, compiled a list of 35 different online tools to help you make sense of data. He demonstrated one tool called the Lippmannian device – named after Walter Lippman.

This tool does two things: it can generate source clouds or issue clouds. Source clouds enable one, for instance, to find out which sites most often quote a particular source. So if you enter the terms ‘climate change sceptics’ you can visualise which sites source sceptics the most. Issue clouds enable you to establish quickly what a particular organisation actually does as opposed to what it says it does. For instance, you can find out the main issues of the top 50 human rights organisations and quickly visualise their relative differences.  The Lippmannian device is a nifty little tool. Incidentally, Google is not too keen about it and is beginning to muscle-in on the operation.

The Guardian database

Simon Rogers is the editor of the Guardian’s Datablog and Datastore. This online data resource publishes hundreds of raw datasets and encourages users to visualise and analyse them. There are around 800 datasets currently available and they add three or four every day.

OUseful.info

Tony Hirst runs this blog. He’s a lecturer at the Open University.  The blog is pretty detailed but provides how-tos on taking data from a website and visualising it in Google Map without having to code anything. You can then send your Google Map URL to anyone.  This is a great feature if you want to locate poverty indexes using Eurostat datasets. You could, for instance, see the relative differences and intensity of poverty in Google Maps.  Note, I haven’t tried doing this but he does provide a step-by-step guide.

Many-eyes.com

Frank van Ham was one of the developers of this useful tool that was quickly bought up by Google. His two partners now work there.  Many-eyes allows you to visualise data and place it online for all to see and comment on. It’s interactive and enables others to manipulate and analyse it. Yes, there are people who actually do this for fun.  Your graphic gets a direct URL that you can then share as well. Or you can also embed the graph into your own website.

Hackhackers and Storify.com

I’d also like to make short mention of this one. Hackhackers is developed by the former AP foreign desk bureau chief Burt Herman. Burt describes his tool as combining computer science with journalism – a still distant concept here in Europe but common in the United States. He took the concept and applied it to tool he calls storify.com.  Storify will allow you (still in development)  to make sense of twitter feeds and may be even find a story. Anyway, the guy was super interesting.

Qgis.org

This tool wasn’t  presented at the conference. But I found out about it from a German journalist who uses it to better analyse Eurostat data. Quantum GIS allows you to visualise, manage, edit, analyse data, and compose printable maps.  Sounds good.

Nikolaj Nielsen is a Brussels-based independent journalist. Published here with the author’s permission. ©Nikolaj Nielsen.

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Egypt’s fearful development

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egyptians are slowly overcoming their fear of authority, but old habits die hard.

29 October 2009

Despite the growing boldness of the Egyptian media in recent years, journalists in Egypt always operate with one eye looking over their shoulder. I was discussing this recently with my brother, Osama, who is based in Cairo and has written a number of critical pieces about the president in the international media. I asked him if he was concerned about falling foul of the authorities. He jokingly remarked that the state security archivist must have a fat file on us Diabs.

He admitted that he tried not to think about the potential consequences of his work too much but he was a little concerned that he might not be let back into the country, like the Cairo-based Swedish blogger who was denied re-entry. This reminded me of when I moved away from Egypt some years ago and was not sure whether they would let me out – especially as I’d just been writing about allegations of torture made by the Muslim Brotherhood. With the economy in dire straits, the government was cracking down on everyone from Muslim Brothers to gay revellers – and I still half-expect to be detained for questioning each time I return.

Though I worry about my youngest bro – who is determined to make use of the growing space for criticism and test Egypt’s expressed commitment to freedom of expression – I respect his refusal, so early in his career, to be swayed by a sense of intimidation or fear.

But if I were looking for peace of mind, the latest Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Sans Frontières, did not provide it. It ranks Egypt 143rd (out of 175) in terms of press freedom and reserves a special place for it among the dirty dozen “enemies of the internet”. “The vitality of the Egyptian blogosphere on the international scene is far from being an advantage for the bloggers involved, who are among the most hounded in the world,” the media watchdog concludes.

But this low ranking fails to reflect the paradoxical nature of freedom of the media – and freedom of expression more generally – in Egypt. On the one hand, Egypt possesses restrictive media laws, a large and largely constrained state-owned media, and can come down very hard on those who step out of line – either the small fry or those who have become too big for comfort.

On the other hand, for all its bluster, the regime is fairly weak, a vanguard of Egyptians have a long tradition of courageously struggling for freedom against the odds, the country is home to a vibrant independent press and civil society and many publications get around the restrictive laws by registering abroad. In addition, the new media are sparking a minor revolution, as internet and satellite penetration deepen.

“Despite a state of emergency and draconian laws, Egyptian journalists do their utmost to roll back the limits imposed on them … Despite the legal, administrative and financial pressures they hold their own,” Reporters Sans Frontières acknowledges.

Although Egyptians are slowly overcoming their ingrained sense of fear of authority, old habits die hard, and there are still more than enough journalists around too frightened to demand the change people desire. Fearful of the consequences, may maintain a noble silence, while a minority ingratiate themselves by going against their convictions and beliefs to curry favour with the regime. In this, the media is a microcosm of wider society, with the majority keeping their heads down and a radical minority fighting for change.

The situation in the media got me thinking about the role of fear in Egyptian society as a whole, and what kind of effects it has on the country’s development. Of course, fear is a natural human instinct and an effective survival mechanism – it can even prompt innovation and creativity.

Moreover, there is not a society on earth in which human action is not partly driven by fear. And the fear of ostracisation or material loss can, if exercised skilfully, be as effective as more fists-on forms of intimidation, as the self-censorship exercised by certain segments of the western media demonstrates.

Given all the other challenges facing the country – shortage of resources, overpopulation, poor education, more than two millennia of foreign domination, etc. – it’s hard to quantify exactly how fear shapes development, and I would be interested to learn other people’s thoughts on the subject.

To my mind, all of Egyptian society’s major institutions – the family, the education system, religious institutions, the business sector, the state and the military – are founded, particularly when it comes to the poorer classes, on a culture of stern obedience, with defiance often leading to punishment and, worse, exclusion and marginalisation. But fear alone is not enough. Egyptian institutions, particularly the family, are apt at locking in its individual members through a sense of love and loyalty.

There are, of course, umpteen exceptions to this rule, but it holds often enough to ensure that most people comply passively – and almost voluntarily – with the status quo, making most forms of defiance also an exception and not the rule.

With independent choice often not welcome at home, independent thought not welcome at school and independent initiative not welcome in business or academia, it is unsurprising that not enough people are willing to think out of the box – because doing so runs the risk of landing them in an abyss, rather than on greener pastures.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 26 October 2009. Read the related discussion.

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