Closed and Banned: Egypt Independent Remains a Force for Freedom of Expression Till the End


It is no longer surprising news when an Egyptian newspaper suddenly receives that fateful order from above to shutdown. Egypt is, as the saying goes, where newspapers come to die.

Such was the unfortunate fate this week of the Egypt Independent – a leading go-to source around the world for credible local Egyptian news and analysis in English – when the Al Masry Media Corporation management informed the editorial team of the English-language edition that after four years it was terminating both the popular print and online operations, reportedly out of cost-cutting necessity. 

The staff decided to use their final edition as a forum to reflect on why and how political and business interests can still so easily stifle freedom of the press and expression two years after, so the rhetoric goes, revolutionary fervor brought the fall of the regime.

“It tries to transcend the difficult moment we are in right now – as a group of people who are losing their jobs and losing their project – to talk about bigger problems pertaining to media in Egypt and mediating the news in Egypt,” explained Lina Atallah, Egypt Independent’s Editor in Chief.  

But, in a move reminiscent of the Mubarak era, on Tuesday the Al Masry management “ordered a last-minute stoppage after scrutinizing the issue’s content,” according to a statement by the Egypt Independent staff. The final edition of the Egypt Independent – which was also to be it’s 50th – never made it to the Thursday-night newsstands that line Cairo’s streets.

Instead, the Egypt Independent team began a concerted online effort to disseminate the stories denied the right to print via the paper’s website. “50th”… to be continued,” reads the final cover.

Business and Media (and Politics) Don’t Mix

Al Masry Al Youm’s official line is that the decision to close Egypt Independent reflects financial problems within Al Masry Corporation – and newspapers in Egypt more generally – which across the board are facing rising publishing costs amid a souring economy and changing readership. And no doubt it does.

But from the newsroom, the move also reflects the problematic political bedrocks of newspaper economics in Egypt that continue to present a fundamental barrier to the print sector’s sustainable development. Never structured as profit-making endeavors, Egyptian newspapers rely on state and business subsidies to stay afloat. Within this stunted market, at state, private, and party papers the heavy hand of the editor at top – and the political figure or businessman financially backing the endeavor – can easily subvert the professional rights of journalists and control their editorial content.

“We can’t just reduce media practice to the binary of state media versus business media,” said Atallah. Instead, she emphasized the need for Egyptian media across the board to engage more with contentious politics and generational divides that increasingly characterize the press.

The decision by Al Masry Al Youm – the pioneering private newspaper in Egypt – to close the Egypt Independent also came amongst several internal changes in staff and priorities.

As the Egypt Independent’s final edition outlines, back in February, the newly appointed Chairman of Al Masry Al Youm corporation Abdel Moneim Said (who previously was the Chairman of the board for Al Ahram Newspaper and Publishing House) told the Egypt Independent editorial team that the English language edition would need to be terminated because of cost-cutting initiatives.

Abdel Moneim Said reportedly compared the decision to prioritize the Arabic edition to “a surgeon who has to conduct the fine operation of letting go of the child in order for the mother to survive.”

At the same time Al Masry also ordered the immediate closure of Al Siyasi, a weekly political magazine started the year before. According to journalists involved, many viewed these shifts within Al Masry as a move by Abdel Moneim Said and those on top to assert their control over the opposition paper.

Egypt Independent fought back. Under the direction of Attalah, the staff initiated a two-month public campaign to boost their circulation and subscription numbers. They also started considering innovative models to enhance their commercial sustainability. From near and far, notes of support poured in.

In the end, however, the survival ventures failed to alter the minds of the men who signed off on the Egypt Independent’s closure.  

To Be Continued…

Beyond simply the details of the Egypt Independent’s closure, however, the newspapers final edition provides readers an insiders and candid look at the Egyptian political and media scene. It is not often enough that Egyptian media is given the chance to tell the world about itself.

In keeping with the paper’s style, the final edition is both serious and satiric. It spans several cross-sections of society – from an examination of neo-liberal policies, to the surviving mechanisms of one of millions of poor Egyptian families, to reflections on lifestyle sections in Egypt, to the importance of the Egypt Independent’s only environmental journalism section in Egypt. Known for it’s unique analysis and constructive criticism rather than simply breaking news, the Egypt Independent’s 50th and final product does not shy from addressing head on the difficult realities Egyptian journalists face.   

In an editorial entitled, "The Triumph of Practice," Atallah reflected on her experiences at Egypt Independent, and the present fissure between the paper’s founding principles and current impasse.

Calling the paper an "intellectual library," Atallah bemoans the loss of an institution that fostered a new wave of responsible and progressive journalism. She raised questions over several legal aspects of the closure, such as the copyright concerns over the name, content, online archives, and financial compensation, and criticized Al Masry’s long-standing marginalization of the English-language edition as a valuable journalistic enterprise. (Heba Afify provides a more in-depth record of Al Masry Al Youm’s history in, “How Poor Management Destroyed a Leading Voice.”)

Of Al Masry Corporation’s decision to terminate the Egypt Independent Atallah writes: “It also raised questions of institutional practice in non-state-controlled media that has reflected, in various instances, a subversion of the dictatorship these media were created to oppose. Not only is this subversion manifested by the unaccounted for decision-making processes of editors-in-chief, but also in the reproduction of the discourse of patriarchy that this president and yesterday’s president have numbed our senses with."

In “A Third Way: Media stuck between the state and the corporate sector” Mai Shams El-Din and Omar Halawa dissect this particular paradox faced by the press today: how media professionals must often choose between working under the tight grip of the government in stable and aging state-run newspapers or at the whim of proprietors of newer private papers who often withhold contracts and other worker rights.  

In “One year, two closures: Investors consider us a source of prestige, not a potential power and revenue generator,” Amira Salah-Ahmed, Mai Shams Al-Din, and Dalia Rabie reflected on the abrupt closure of their previous paper, the English-language Daily News Egypt on April 19, 2012. (The Daily News Egypt has since reopened with different staff and management.) The article is written as an intentionally informal and often satiric conversation between the three friends and journalists who have had to cope with two closures in one year.

Of the experience, Salah Ahmed recalled a sense of déjàvu, “It’s the way big businessmen deal with what they consider small time journalists, who they can simply push around and hire and fire as they please without thinking about any financial responsibility to the people who have put their heart and soul into producing this kind of content.”

In "More than a Language: The Politics of local English media" Dina K. Hussein and Dalia Rabie address the market and symbolic power divide between the foreign and local press. They criticize the foreign press’s perceived monopoly over the production of knowledge and news narratives on the local level – a dynamic that can be harmful to the development of a local cadre of independent and professional journalists – and highlight the local English press’ important role as a mediator between the English and Arabic speaking worlds.

They also trace key developments in English language media, starting with Hisham Qassem’s landmark Cairo Times from the 1990s to early 2000s, to the recent dismissal of Hani Shakrullah, a journalist long known for his progressive views and journalistic integrity, from his position as Editor in Chief of state-owned Al Ahram Online. .

Jano Charbel in the “The burdensome profession: job security, financial problems, and dangers in the field plague journalists,” further chronicles the field’s constant closures and occupations insecurities.  

Charbel notes that in the last few years 13 papers have closed, leaving some 350 journalists out of jobs, and hundreds of more dismissed or working without benefits or contracts. He records the stories of several closed newspapers, describing how politicized institutions like the syndicate fail to support journalists in attaining their rights.

“Faced with physical danger, the threat of arrests, growing financial crises, the mismanagement of news outlets and rising unemployment — along with a host of other problems — Egypt’s journalists increasingly find themselves paying the price for these burdens with their own welfare and jobs,” he writes.

In keeping with the Egypt Independent’s creative side, the final edition also includes a page, 50 on 50, with 50 words of wisdom, one for each issue.

Coming in at number one: "Sustainability and business development are key to the media battle in Egypt today."

Miriam Berger is a freelance-writer and Fulbright and CASA Fellow in Egypt researching on Egyptian print media. 

Photo: Egypt Independent

Image: EI.jpg