Monday, July 25, 2011

The Truth Is Out There

Media is one of the thickest cogs in the wheel of democracy, a constant energy field disseminating the news to every axel and spoke so that communication between the masses and leaders rolls smoothly.  In a participatory system that by definition is supposed to be of the whole population, there must be an effective mode of accumulating and imparting information.  This will subsequently serve to promote national unity.  This is particularly true in this age of digital wizardry, where an interconnected global citizenry is able to feel part of something continents away.  In Egypt’s case, we’re talking about a country of about 85 million, from the farmers sand dunes away from Cairo in Upper Egypt, to the Bedouins running the tourism a canal away in the Sinai peninsula.  It is easy to think that Egypt is Cairo, but a geography as vast as this antique land, traversed by the Nile and the Sahara, and a peoples as assorted as Egyptians, some still without access to modern technology, makes the task of sharing information within a nation that much more challenging.

Fathy Abou Hatab, the Managing Editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s website, understands these tests to Egypt’s unity, and he is innovating to find solutions.  Al-Masry Al-Youm is Egypt’s most widely read newspaper, an independent publication that defends liberal values, as opposed to state-run media outlets.  My program’s journalism club, of which I am a member, had the privilege to meet with him a few weeks ago, during which he detailed the reforms that he feels need to take place in the Egyptian media in order for it to align with the values of the January 25th revolution.

One of the most formidable obstacles to an Egyptian free press is access to information.  Hatab told us that there have always been red lines between the truth and what the public can be privy to; for example, Mubarak’s health was always off limits, as were the army’s inner workings and business ventures (those still are).  This line of defense has been strengthened by MASPERO, Egypt’s state television, whose “legacy has become one of distortion of the truth, spreading misinformation, and enforcing its regime-mandated ideals on a public with little or no access to alternative outlets”.  By way of the Minister of the Media, a position reserved only for authoritarian societies, news has been stripped of meaning and stuffed into a jeweled box sealed with a kiss by Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. 

In revolutionary Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) guards this giant box of state secrets.  They decide whether or not to publicly air the trials of the criminals responsible for Egypt’s dire poverty and murdered protesters (link).  While those trials are inexplicably delayed, bloggers and journalists and activists are tried in military courts for exercising their right to free speech.  SCAF dictates the fate of media personalities brave enough to criticize them, as recently happened when Dina Abdel Rahman lost her job after reading on air a letter by an activist openly denouncing the military council.  A general had a word with her boss, and fear and censorship once again clapped its hand over information’s mouth.  SCAF’s announcements are heard by most, so the way it decides to distort the picture is often taken at face value by much of the populace.

In addition to state controls, Hatab also detailed how the newspaper has, over decades of adapting to a corrupt system, created boundaries for itself in a variety of ways.  For example, each area of focus is assigned a particular person who alone is responsible for covering the people and events related to it; this seems to me to inhibit journalists from branching out and obtaining that much-needed general knowledge about their society.  It also encourages cronyism and creates more corners for information-seekers to cut around.

Hatab was full of ideas for his country’s media that seemed aching to burst out the building’s walls: how could Al-Masry Al-Youm incorporate more of Egyptian society into the sphere of knowledge?  How could they encourage readership?  How could they bring more Egyptians into the conversation about the nation’s future?  He lamented that there is only one edition of the newspaper for the entire country, as opposed to regionally focused editions as found in many US newspapers.  This would encourage readership, although Egypt’s astonishing 40% illiteracy rate will complicate this.  He also spoke of integrating “citizen journalists” into mainstream media, ie. making space for bloggers and users of new social media.  The day we spoke to him, he was launching another imaginative idea called “Conversation with the Square”, an attempt to facilitate dialogue between those conducting a sit-in in Tahrir Square and those average citizens removed from the square.

Like many facets of Egyptian society in wake of the revolution, the flow of information now has an opportunity to move through society as it should, facilitating exchange of ideas for the new Egypt, promoting education, and championing a national dialogue.  SCAF needs to get out of the way of the turning motion of this wheel.

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