With Mubarak gone, Egypt journalists get first taste of freedom
In its commitment to keep its promises to the protesters about constitutional changes, Egypt's army seems to have forgotten is the vow to change the Media Law.
Until just a week ago, Ibrahim Nafa, the former editor-in-chief of the Cairo daily, Al-Ahram, was still writing his dull column. He wrote about the national conscience, about the speeches delivered by (then ) Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his deputy and how they indicated their genuine intention to fulfill their promises, and he praised them for accepting all the demands of the Egyptian people. He forgot to mention just one thing.
Nafa is perhaps the ultimate symbol of journalistic corruption. When he took leave of the Al-Ahram media conglomerate, he left behind hundreds of millions of dollars in debts to the government and suppliers. Yet he managed to get away with roughly $3 billion -- the accumulated sum of cuts he earned over the years on almost every deal the newspaper made, from commissions on paper purchases to downright bribes, allegedly paid to him by contractors who built the elevators in the newspaper's luxurious headquarters. His salary was roughly $200,000 a month, while other journalists at the newspaper were earning between $20 and $500. He hired members of his family to staff the newspaper's bureaus in the Gulf states and, needless to say, was always loyal to those who signed his paycheck.
This past weekend, while the revolution was gaining momentum in the streets and outside the presidential palace, Al-Ahram's editorial board published a special supplement called "The Youth of Al-Tahrir" and distributed it for free.
On Saturday, another revolution took place at the newspaper when a bigger-than-usual headline in red proclaimed: "The people have deposed the regime." The spirit of revolt was also evident in other government newspapers, which for years had supported Mubarak and his regime. At Rose al-Youssef, reporter demonstrated against the editor, Abdullah Kamal, demanding his ousting and that of the chairman of the board, Karam Jaber. They also demanded the immediate closure of another newspaper, The Seventh Day, which is edited by the son of the former Information Minister, Safwat al-Sharif.
The next targets on the list are state-run newspapers and television, as well as Information Minister Anas Al-Faqi, currently under house arrest and awaiting a criminal investigation. Together, they've received hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to help create a positive narrative about the regime, to praise its achievements and to promote Gamal Mubarak as the next president. As the arm of the ruling party, they were also used by it to disseminate fear about the Muslim Brotherhood.
They've quickly come around, though, understanding the urgency of changing course. By Saturday, they were already referring to the "Muslim Brothers" explicitly, deleting the requisite phrase, "the forbidden organization."
Rectifying the damage
It is doubtful whether this turnaround will help those news organizations that had supported the continuation of Mubarak's regime. The myth regarding circulation figures of 2 million a day has long been shattered, the real number closer to one-tenth of this. At the same time, in the television building on the banks of the Nile, some of the senior staff have begun packing up, with hundreds of others uncertain where their next paycheck will come from. It's unlikely, though, that these government organs will be shut down in the near future.
The army needs them to publish its directives, and the temporary government cannot allow itself at one fell blow to fire thousands of people who work in the media. The real news will continue to flow through the Internet, but it's possible that freedom from censorship will give these news organization the chance to rectify in some way the journalistic corruption of generations.
These were the organizations that created an entire generation of journalistic elites who enjoyed a high economic and social status, but at the same time, they were also responsible for the great gap that existed between what ordinary citizens knew and what the regime wanted them to know.
"The regime apparently believed its media even though it was the source that provided them with the lies it itself had invented, and for this reason, it wasn't ready for this revolution," an Egyptian blogger wrote me. "Now we have to hope for a regime that knows how to read blogs and take a peek at Facebook."
The media revolution this week took another stride forward when hundreds of journalists - to date - signed a petition urging new elections at the Journalists' Association, which was headed by the talented and veteran reporter Makrem Mohammed Ahmed. In 1987, Islamic extremists tried to assassinate him, and he was one of a handful of journalists prepared to support Ibrahim Issa, the editor of Al-Dustour, who was tried for publishing information about Mubarak's health. In conversations we had long before the revolution, Ahmed never minced words when it came to criticizing the regime. At the same time, he admitted that he had to earn a living and to maintain his status. Last week, dozens of journalists prevented him from entering the building where the Journalists' Association's offices are located and demanded his resignation.
There was one thing the army forgot in its broad commitment to keep its promises to the protesters about constitutional changes - including changes in the way the president is elected and in election supervision, as well as an end to the emergency regime: It was the promise to change the Media Law, which also seems to have been forgotten by the protesters. The law was in fact amended in 2006, and ever since, a journalist who slanders a senior public figure is subject to a heavy fine rather than a prison sentence. But this still does not jibe with the demand for democratization.
According to the law, private individuals cannot set up a newspaper; only corporations with capital of at least one million Egyptian pounds can ask for a license to do so. The law also prohibits insulting foreign countries or leaders who have friendly relations with Egypt and besmirching the name of the state. What is considered slanderous or insulting? That is not defined specifically in the law, and the courts are authorized to rule whetherjournalists have committed crimes in this regard.
It isn't only the media law, though, that the press will want to change now, but dozen of laws relating to censorship. That will be the heart of the revolution.