Egypt’s English Language Media Battles Financial Woes, Political Pressure

The financial difficulties facing English language media outlets in Egypt did not stop the launch of the country’s latest English news website this week. The Cairo Post, which went live on Sunday, is owned by Youm al-Saba’a, an independent Arabic daily which boasts one of the most-visited news websites in the country.

As one outlet opened, it seemed like another might soon close. On September 14, Daily News Egypt, an independent local paper, announced that it was once again facing severe financial difficulties. An op-ed from editor-in-chief Maher Hamoud warned of “merciless financial pressure” on the paper and called on readers to “help keep it alive” by purchasing subscriptions.

Hamoud’s team took the helm of the paper in a June 2012 re-launch, a couple of months after it had been abruptly shut down by owners citing financial difficulties. According to Hamoud, the investors who bought and re-launched the title planned to cover costs for a year until it could sustain itself — a goal that has not yet been reached.

Daily News Egypt is not the only local English language publication that has been dogged by financial problems. This year also saw the closure of Egypt Independent, an online and print publication published by Al-Masry Al-Youm, in a move that management likewise blamed on financial problems. The closure of the online edition was, however, temporary, as the Al-Masry Corporation revived the website, publishing mainly translations from the Arabic edition.

Falling revenues

“There used to be a healthy market,” says Rana Allam, managing editor of Daily News Egypt. “But now there is no tourism in the country, and as an English language newspaper, the first people who would advertise with us would be the tourism industry.”

By May of this year, Allam says, the financial outlook of the paper was looking better as tourism started to pick up, but the political upheaval that followed the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July slowed growth and put a halt to the brief revival in tourism. Hotel occupancy rates in July and August were at their lowest for years.

“Hotels usually buy bulk subscriptions. But there are no tourists in the hotels, so they don’t subscribe anymore,” Allam says.

Egyptian media has been hit hard by the economic crisis that followed in the wake of the 2011 revolution. But Lina Attalah, who was chief editor of Egypt Independent until its closure in April 2013, believes that the decision to shutter the paper she managed was not solely about falling revenues.

“The main cited reason for Egypt Independent‘s closure was financial. It was a time when Egypt Independent’s sister paper, [leading private daily] Al-Masry Al-Youm, was conducting a financial review of its status,” she says.

But Egypt Independent was often “accused of being too autonomous” from its Arabic sister paper and was subject on occasion to censorship from senior management. One early edition was pulled after an op-ed criticizing the military was deemed too sensitive.

The Egypt Independent team were “much more progressive than the Arabic sister publication, and we were quite deliberate about being autonomous and independent from the Arabic edition,” Attalah says. “So we were a preferred casualty.”

Political investments

Egypt reportedly has the largest newspaper readership in the Arab world, with daily newspaper circulation reaching 4.3 million in 2010. But English language publications cater to a much smaller readership, and print runs tend to be in the thousands.

And while some English language websites are able to attract millions of page views, revenues from online advertising remain low. Accordingly, says Allam, “most of the investors [looking to purchase English language titles] have a political agenda behind them.”

“They come to you with a bulk of money and they tell you: ‘I will have a veto on your editorial policy. I will have a say on what runs and doesn’t run.’ It’s very clear — they’re buying the editorial team. They’re not buying the paper, because it’s definitely not making any money.”

English language media in particular serves a purpose beyond catering to the needs of English speakers based in Egypt. It offers a way to communicate directly with a foreign audience.

Amira Howeidy, deputy editor of Al-Ahram Weekly, says that the paper was established by the state run Al-Ahram foundation in 1991 as part of an attempt to reach out to foreigners. “It was a time when there was the Gulf War, and it was important to have a voice in English,” she says.

With Morsi’s removal by the military in July, an already partisan media scene became starkly polarized.  The majority of outlets, both state and privately owned, adopted the state narrative, while pro-Morsi publications claim they are targeted by state security.

Amid the political upheaval, considerable anxiety has been expressed within Egypt about western perceptions, or misperceptions, of the facts surrounding Morsi’s ouster.

Lina Attalah thinks there is a connection between this anxiety and a current interest being shown by Egyptian media companies in English language outlets.

“Right now, a lot of newspapers like Youm al-Saba’a and even Al-Masry Al-Youm are interested in reviving their English editions in the wake of the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood and…the international backlash” she says. “There is a feeling that there needs to be an English language news arm that defends the army position.”

New outlets and new models

Youm al-Saba’a, an Arabic daily with a hugely popular news site, experimented briefly with an English language format in 2011. The Youm7 English Edition, which primarily published English translations of Youm El-Saba’a Arabic, ran from April to December 2011, when it was abruptly closed.

Sallie Pisch, who managed the project, is now director of The Cairo Post, Youm El-Saba’a’s new English language site. Unlike the previous project, the Post aims to generate a substantial number of independently-written pieces, rather than primarily focus on translations.

Pisch explains that the new outlet was launched to “provide a greater context” about Egypt to foreign audiences. “Outsiders generally see news about Egypt and infer that the entire country is in flames – not because the international media is intentionally getting the story wrong, but because the fact that three blocks away life continues as normal simply isn’t news,” she says.

Pisch says her site will cover “the clashes and the attacks on churches, but we’ll also do our best to portray the heart of Egypt to the rest of the world…because the world doesn’t hear that side of it.”

She also argues that the site will make a unique contribution by utilizing the existing network of Youm al-Saba’a correspondents across the country to bring English language readers regional news that they would otherwise not have access to.

“Unless a church is getting burned down, we don’t hear about Marsa Matrouh or Wadi al-Gadeed,” she says.

Although Youm al-Saba’a is known for politicized reporting and for its strong support for the transitional authorities, Pisch says that The Cairo Post “can and will publish all sides of a story” because such balance “is necessary to be taken seriously by a global audience.”

New media models

As print publications struggle, it remains to be seen whether there is a sustainable financial model for English language press that also allows objective and accurate coverage.

In the state media, the pressure to make a profit is removed, but journalists risk overt political pressure to support state narratives. Amira Howeidy, however, compares the relative freedom of Al-Ahram Weekly, and English language news site Ahram Online, of which she was a co-founder, to the stricter confines of the Arabic press.

“We were one of the first papers to write about the dissent movement against Hosni Mubarak” she says. Although there were some periods when pressure to conform to certain government narratives were felt, “we were generally free to write what we wanted to write,” says Howeidy.

Ahram Online, Howeidy argues, also manages to be “quite objective” in its current political coverage, in contrast to the Arabic language output of Al-Ahram.

Lina Attalah argues that it is critical that Egyptian media develop new models of funding and sustainability to allow true independence and autonomy.

Along with many former staff members from Egypt Independent, she launched a new news site, Mada Masr, in June. Run by a staff of twenty-five, the site is at present is funded by a number of development grants from the non-profit sector, but is seeking investors.

“The idea is to decentralize the sources of funding so that you maintain editorial autonomy,” says Attalah. The project aims to build an investment fund based on contributions from at least fifty investors who are interested in “civic engagement.”

“In order to have a working democracy you need to have independent media that doesn’t necessarily follow your own political tendencies as an investor but that reports accurately and objectively about the news,” Attalah says.

“We’re trying to change the investment culture and the current model of media ownership.”

Hazel Haddon is a journalist based in Cairo.

Image: Photo: Stefano Zucchiatti