A lot has been made recently of the need to reform the state-owned press in Egypt. A sit-in of tattered tents and spray paint outside the Maspero building downtown demands a purge of Mubarak-era media officials who work inside. Activists have realized that real political change will come from a public awakening only possible without a pro-regime press. The photo above shows a now common stenciled graffiti that accuses state-owned media of being 'liars,' defending the regime against the will of the people.
In 1960, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Egyptian press. Calling it a “reorganization,” he transferred ownership of the four major publishing houses into the hands of the National Union, an organization meant to “the will and the authority of the people” and realize a “socialist revolution.” Since the revolution in 1952, the relationship between the press and Nasser’s ruling cadre had been tepid, with censorship and relative freedom waxing and waning with Nasser’s quixotic whims.
Quixotic, perhaps, but not insincere. Reading Nasser’s statements recently, I’ve been seeing a surprising, disarming candor about the aims of censorship. Opposed to what one might expect from a censoring dictator, Nasser often directed anger at sensational tabloids, rather than political investigations. “The social interest of the press did not reflect our new reality,” he once said, explaining a crackdown in the late 50’s. “The new reality in our society is that of the village, the peasant and the workers, and not the Hilton Hotel.”
A few years later, Nasser spoke at the Third International Conference of Journalists in Cairo. He rattled off statistics that gave an impression of government transparency; “the budget this year reached LE 1,100 million, LE 350 million of which go to services, LE 150 million to the Army and internal security and the rest to production and development in industry…”
The delegation from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), perhaps seeking the kind of bombshell that makes press conferences more than a dreary PR performance, stood up and confronted the President: “You are welcoming us here as journalists. Why do you prevent freedom of expression in your country?”
“Freedom of expression in our country is a long subject,” Nasser began, before forcing the journalists to sit through the long explanation. Before the revolution, he explained, the press had been a trade, and therefore beholden to the interests of capital. The cost of starting a paper was so high that only rich businessmen and political parties could afford to do it, meaning that coverage was dictated by the interests of the elite, rather than the interests of the people. “The parties supported the press and these parties had certain contacts with foreign countries which interfered under the veil of advertisements and the need of the papers to be financed,” he argued. “Thus the press was influenced by foreigners.”
Nasser, perhaps naïve and certainly romantic, thought that bringing the news under the authority of the state would actually make it more responsible to the people, because for him the revolutionary state was nothing more than the people’s will. Nasser’s own well-publicized asceticism (he refused to eat fancy foods and lived in a middle class house) certainly made this a believable, if impractical vision.
In 2006, many years after Nasser gave that answer to the reporters from Ceylon, a well-known Egyptian publisher named Hisham Kassem arrived at the World Association of Newspapers conference in Moscow. He had spent several years as CEO of Al Masry Al Youm, one of the first Egyptian newspapers beholden to no political party or Mubarak’s regime.
Kassem was idealistic too. He only hired young university graduates unfettered with employment experience at one of the other papers. Al Masry Al Youm, Kassem’s Editor-in-Chief Magdy Al Galed had written, "believes in the right of the reader to receive a great deal of objective and balanced information…thus leaving it up to the reader to take sides and form opinions."
But Kassem had reservations about how Al Masry Al Youm would be funded by “big businessmen.” “They have interests in markets,” he told me and a group of Fulbright students one evening this Fall, “and they’re going to start to commandeer content or to block content,”
In Moscow, Kassem sat and watched as Gavin O’Reilly, the president of the World Association of Newspapers gave a speech to open the conference. Putin was in attendance, and, in Kassem’s words, O’Reilly “trashed” him “for his track record with media.”
In that speech, O’Reilly spoke brusquely to Putin, channeling in a way the Ceylon reporters speaking to Nasser forty-three years earlier. “Mr. President, you and your government are on record as having clearly expressed your attachment to freedom of the press and have repeatedly articulated its importance to your fledgling democracy,” he began.
“Why is it,” he then asked, “that the State is still accused of promoting an atmosphere of caution and self-censorship among journalists, fearful for their livelihoods if they step very visibly out of line?”
Putin channeled Nasser in his response. “The 1990s was a period that saw capital from all sources arrive on the emerging Russian media market,” he said. “Sometimes this capital came from sources that hardly qualify as transparent. And the owners of this capital often had their own interests to pursue, interests far removed from the public’s demands.”
The moment of challenge passed, much as it had in 1963. But Putin’s retort had a big effect on Kassem, the Egyptian newspaper CEO. He remembers the whole thing a little differently. In his version, Putin was much more biting. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kassem remembered Putin as saying. “Our media was owned by the Communist party. It collapsed. Before we knew it, five or six oligarchs bought up all the media in Russia and they were making public opinion.”
“My big fear now,” Kassem said of himself, “is that the media is going to be owned by the oligarchs here in Egypt and like Mr. Putin said that is much more dangerous than a single state entity owning them.”
“This was the first time,” he explained, “that somebody’s oppressed media made sense to me.”
From that moment on, Kassem felt guilty about his work. He felt that his paper was controlled by “oligarchs.” At one point, a businessman on the board of Al Masry Al Youm said to Kassem “My really good buddy, he’s running for treasurer on the board of Ahly club [a well-known sporting and social club] and we want to give him status.”
Kassem did not like this sort of thing, and would explain that helping out the friend of the board member would only impugn the credibility of the paper. The guilt finally built to the point where Kassem resigned from the paper.
“And if you look now,” Kassem said, “there isn’t a single paper or TV station that’s not owned by an individual.”