Last updated: April 29, 2013
Dina K. Hussein: Silencing English-language media in Egypt

"Independent English-language media outlets have provided local journalists with an opportunity to tell their country’s narrative in their own voice"

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“It is always the fixer who dies,” is the title of a seminal article by George Packer that appeared in The New Yorker in 2009 to mourn the death of Sultan Munadi, a local fixer who lost his life in a commando raid in Afghanistan. The raid that ended Munadi’s life took place in order to free foreign journalists who were captivated by the Taliban. The foreign correspondent was freed, the fixer died, and the operation was deemed a success. This tragedy and Packer’s dramatic title are fitting curtain raisers to the struggle of local English-language media in Egypt.

For decades, local journalists who had the necessary language skills helped foreign correspondents working for Western news organizations to tell Egypt’s story to the world. Yet, as Packer remarks, this fixer-foreign correspondent relationship has always been tense, punctuated by a power imbalance. This imbalance in the journalistic establishment pays homage to the classical inequalities of power that dictate who gets to produce knowledge. A plain analysis of this condition speaks of a Western journalistic establishment that possess the power and money to send its correspondents to gaze at the troubled Middle East and provide the world with the knowledge base of this part of the world through narrating the story of the locals.

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The local English-language media, however, have played a vital role in partially mending this power imbalance by allowing Egyptian journalists to tell Egypt’s story to the world, not as fixers who might or might not get their due credit, but as primary storytellers.

Local independent English-language media outlets, such as Cairo Times, Daily News Egypt, and Egypt Independent have provided local journalists with an opportunity to tell their country’s narrative in their own voice. Additionally, these media outlets have created a unique space for local and foreign journalists, editors and translators to interact and work together to report critically and with integrity, breaking away from the rigidity of foreign/local dichotomies and the associated power imbalance.

In the process, these outlets became a go-to source for international media organizations interested in covering Egypt, mediating complex realities about the country to the world. Often, they acted as transitional platforms for young foreign journalists hoping to better understand the story ahead of getting opportunities in international outlets. But more importantly, they produced a journalism that informs media practice in Egypt in the way stories are covered and issues are represented.

These local English-language outlets, however, have faced numerous challenges over the years. While many of those challenges are financial in nature and pertain to the viability of their business models, there have also been critical political restrictions.

Independent journalists in general have long struggled against the Egyptian state’s oppression. Even though English-language publications have enjoyed a higher ceiling of freedom compared to Arabic media outlets, they have often been intimidated by censors. Cairo Times, the leading English-language paper in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was a pioneer in criticizing Hosni Mubarak’s regime and often grappled with the censors physically removing the paper from the market in heightened points of confrontation. One of the legacies of Cairo Times is that it groomed many of the leading journalists and media experts on the Middle East today. But its unfortunate closure due to financial hardships is not a distant memory since the state’s stifling of freedom of expression has not subsided with the revolution.

English-language papers are facing unprecedented restrictions under the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule today. The struggle of local English-speaking media has intensified under the current administration for both political and economic reasons. The recent dismissal of Hani Shukrallah, former editor-in chief of Ahram Online and a journalist known for his integrity and progressive views, is telling of the current administration’s heavy-handed policing of local English-media outlets. This is a quest to control the image these media outlets produce about Egypt abroad at a time when the current administration, like its predecessors, is weary of preserving its relation with strategic foreign allies.

Ahram Online is an English-language news portal published by state-owned Al-Ahram establishment that is currently being administered by figures affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. Even though it was born in the context of a state-run press organization, Shukrallah managed to conceive a robust independent voice through a team of apt journalists. Upon his dismissal, Shukrallah narrated how he was intimidated, deprived of his pension benefits, and forced to retire by Ahram’s current management.

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While seemingly different, the two cases of Cairo Times and Ahram Online meet at several intersections. True the former was privately owned while the latter is government-run, true one was born and thrived prior to the revolution, while the latter thrived afterwards. And true the former closed eventually for what appeared to be financial reasons, while the latter is going through political restrictions. But the intersections lie in the fact that those on the forefront of successful English-language media in Egypt are often independent voices, regardless of their institutional affiliations. The intersections lie in the fact that the precarious ecology of freedom of expression that preceded the revolution is persisting in our post-uprising times. And most importantly, the intersections lie in how financial hardships are essentially a façade for political restrictions. This is particularly the case in a context wherein investing in media can become more threatening than rewarding for certain private sector players working on sorting out business under the new Brotherhood regime

The challenges facing English-language publications operating in the realm of privately-owned media are a case in point. After working hard for four years on developing Egypt Independent as a leading local independent English-language publication, the paper has been notified by Al-Masry Al-Youm's management, which runs it alongside the popular Arabic daily by the same name, that it can no longer continue to exist due to financial losses. The abrupt decision to close Egypt Independent came at the heels of years of confrontation between the Mubarak regime and the Arabic Al-Masry Al-Youm daily, which inaugurated a tradition of independent print media in Egypt outside the scope of state and partisan press. The paper continued to operate despite on-going financial hurdles because it viewed itself as more of a political than an economic venture.

The current mounting economic crisis has evidently threatened the livelihood of independent media more than ever before. Just a year ago, Daily News Egypt, the only independent English-language daily paper in print form, was also abruptly closed after seven years of operation. But what is more alarming is the lack of political commitment from media entrepreneurs toward this kind of journalism.

This is why the editorial team of Egypt Independent has decided to fight for preserving this important news outlet, by tapping into possibilities for sustainability models and turning to its community of readers for support.

Egypt Independent is struggling for its survival because it believes in the home is has created today for a new generation of journalists, columnists, and thinkers who are capable of telling the “Egypt story” differently. This experience is shared by those who read and engage with Egypt Independent both in Egypt and abroad. For Professor Nathan Brown, "the vibrancy of the political debate in Egypt has become accessible through Egypt Independent. Egypt no longer speaks in a single political voice, and Egypt Independent has become the leading medium for English speakers to hear and make sense of the new cacophony." Scholar Yasmine Moataz wrote, "Egypt Independent has played an essential role in shaping, developing and nurturing debates about Egypt’s rapid political transformations. Its gifted staff and extraordinary editorial team made Egypt Independent ahead of other English-speaking newspapers not only in Egypt but also worldwide.

We stand to protect a homegrown practice we believe in, whereby news are interrogated and not just relayed, cultural production is critiqued rather than just covered, environmental issues that affect our livelihoods are brought to the forefront of public attention, and new voices reflecting on the notion of change are the ones featured in our opinion page. The preservation of English-language media outlets such as Egypt Independent is crucial, especially at a time when the current administration and ruling party are hiding the truth about their commitment to the revolution and its democratic aspirations from the world.

In this environment, local English-language media plays a central role in representing and narrating the truth at a time when the road to freedom is plagued by historical amnesia and manipulation of history by those in power. Egypt is currently witnessing one of its most crucial historical transformations and cannot afford to lose another independent journalistic establishment that relay to the world the story of this country’s struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.

This article originally appeared on Jadaliyya.

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