Saturday, January 7, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #2

Sarah El Sirgany is one of the best-known independent journalists in Egypt. Many times when I tell people that I write for The Daily News Egypt, where she is the managing editor, they ask about her with the reverence usually reserved for celebrities.

After witnessing many conversations in the newspaper’s office, it became clear that she has thought long and hard about her role as a journalist during and after last January’s uprisings, and the relationship between her work and activism. “As an independent journalist you’re cornered. You’re classified as anti-regime right away, no matter how objective you are,” she told me one afternoon, taking a short break from work for a sandwich. “If you’re not with us you’re against us.”

The term ‘independent journalist’ here usually refers to reporters for a news source other than those owned by the state or political parties, though this does not necessarily mean they are free of outside interests. Publisher Hisham Kassem, who used to run the independent Al Masry Al Youm, quit his position over worries that his newspaper was owned by big business interests and would become compromised in its reporting as a result. “If you look now there isn’t a single paper or TV station that’s not owned by an individual,” he told a group of students recently. “My big fear now is that the media is going to be owned by the oligarchs here in Egypt.”

But what makes Sarah an independent journalist, I think, is also the way she speaks critically of the state-owned, Arabic language press. “The problem is there’s a school,” she told me. “I don’t know why it’s been propagated as a school of journalism, a school of writing that’s being taught as a school of journalism, in how you start to editorialize, write more descriptive, literary type of writing in Arabic, while you are writing a news report or an investigative feature.”  She attributes this style of writing to “lack of development.” “We got stagnated,” she explained, “in the 1960s.”

That was when the Egyptian government under Nasser nationalized the press (using the more indirect term “reorganize”). But the history of the style Sarah sees as “stagnated” goes much farther back. In the late nineteenth century, newspapers began to proliferate throughout the Arab world, then mostly under the Ottoman Empire. The majority of the early newspaper editors and journalists in Egypt were not native Egyptians, but Christians from greater Syria escaping stricter control of the press in regions closer to the Ottoman capitol of Istanbul.

These Christian Arabs, among them the founders of Al Ahram, now Egypt and the Arab world’s highest circulation newspaper, had been educated in French mission schools and for various reasons had become culturally Francophile. According to Abdullah Schleifer, longtime NBC bureau chief in Cairo who later worked for Saudi-owned station Al-Arabiya, they were “influenced by the aggressively laic if not agnostic quality to much of the nineteenth century Parisian press.”

“The secular and often non-Muslim pioneers of Arab journalism,” he continues, “were drawn to the belle letter tradition within Arabic literature…which had more to do with literary flourish and self-expression, interpretation, opinion, and literary stance than with accuracy and sourcing.”

Schleifer’s explanation is sweeping, but compelling as a grand historical narrative. He explains how Anglo-American journalism developed in the context of merchants needing quick, accurate, objective information, while French journalism, which inspired much Arab journalism, saw “news as a vehicle for analysis—often a most partisan or ideological analysis.”

In 1960, when Nasser nationalized the Egyptian press, this historically French-influenced style easily merged with the need to use the press to mobilize the Egyptian people towards Nasser’s anti-imperial vision of Egyptian self-determination. The most-read articles of the time were by Mohamed Heikal, a close friend of Nasser and Editor in Chief of Al Ahram, whose Friday columns were believed to be a direct communication from Nasser to Egypt and the world (the columns were translated immediately every week into English and French for foreign diplomats).  “The press is an authority whose function is to guide people and actively participate in building their society exactly as does the People’s Assembly,’” Heikal wrote in 1960.

Fifty years later, many independent Egyptian journalists, and nearly all of the English-language reporters, study at the American University in Cairo, and have taken to the American school of journalism, with its emphasis on neutral, sharp factual accounts. Pick out any article on politics in The Daily News Egypt, where Sarah is the managing editor, and it reads like a just-the-facts-ma’am Associated Press brief. This emphasis on the American style puts journalists like Sarah into a culture clash with the heirs to the more literary tradition, who still populate the state-owned newspaper’s mastheads. In this clash of institutional cultures, one person’s “guidance” and “active participation” is another’s sycophantic self-censorship.

But part of the problem, for Sarah, is that even if she wanted source and verify her facts with the kind of meticulous detail she respects so much, it is impossible much of the time. “It’s an issue of how we can verify all this information,” she told me. “It’s not just about having the courage to write [and challenge the regime.]. It’s about actually having the information, and a big part of the story is that we don’t have a Freedom of Information Act.”

Back when she was an intern, she explained, she would be tasked with fact-checking. “Just to call a government authority to check that the number you have is right and that the head of the authority is the same name that you have,” she explained, “you end up with ‘Why are you asking?’” and other angrier questions from the bureaucrat on the other end of the phone.  “So we don’t have this culture of giving out information, even to journalists.”

In general, though, Sarah seems hopeful. When I asked her about the revolution, now nearly a year ago, she said it had a big effect on how she saw her own role in Egypt: “For me at least it provided me with a sense that writing could be a source of information and people would react…It triggered a newfound freedom because all the taboos were broken in a day.” Still, recalling the state-employed reporters, she sighed: “a lot of journalists were trapped in a self-censorship mentality.”

More on Egyptian Journalism

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