Saturday, April 28, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #4: Rania Al Malky

When I interviewed Daily News Egypt editor Rania Al Malky three weeks ago, I did not know that the paper’s end was imminent. A week later, they could close up the office, but today was typical, meaning that office conversation still picked apart the day’s stories, many of which would be irrelevant after a few days, or even a few hours. ‘This candidate is in the race, this other is out, this third one might be in, but we’re waiting on the courts. This other one could change everything if he runs. But will he appeal to people?’ The confidence of the headlines produces the opposite behind the scenes, an ongoing debate about what might be future headlines.

It goes on for hours. Lunch is delivered from a phone-in order. They continue to talk, one hand on the keyboard, the other on a fork, all the time chatting like there isn’t a newspaper due in a few hours. An old colleague stops by. They catch up with one eye still on the computer screens. He sits pleasantly waiting for them to take another one of the thirty-second breaks that checker the afternoon.

As head of the editors, Rania subtly creates the workplace’s tone with an intensity that also shapes the bite of her own editorial writing. Two days earlier, she publishes a piece on the anniversary of the April 6th protests of 2008, one of the earliest seeds of the revolution. “On the fourth anniversary of the April 6 protests, an invisible voyeur looks down from above,” she writes, “sporting a grin that is part gloating and part ‘mission accomplished’.” She explains how these protests led to the 2011 revolution, and then she concludes: “Fast forward a year or so and the irony of the political reality in Egypt is enough to make you laugh and cry.”

The April 6th protests took place in Mahalla, which is where Rania’s father was born in the 1930’s. Then as now, the city was a “hotbed of nationalistic fervor.” As a politically active young man in the early 50's he was arrested a few times, imprisoned once, and then fled Egypt in the 60’s to work in Kuwait, as Nasser tightened the noose on the opposition.

He came back and married Rania’s mother, who in school had been a “hardcore Nasserist.” “You find this in a lot of Egyptian families,” Rania told me. “A lot of Egyptians oscillate on Nasser. It’s a love-hate relationship with that man, which you don’t see with Mubarak.”

Rania was still in elementary school when Mubarak came to power after the shock of Sadat’s assassination. “It seems to me that there were great expectations,” she says, but Mubarak “kept people confused enough to divide the public, and he cultivated a culture of parasites…people with huge stakes in making the system continue as it is, to keep the power balance tipped in his favor.”

Today, there are only so many people in Egypt with great wealth who didn’t benefit from the corruption of the Mubarak years. This includes the Daily News Egypt’s original backers. One had even been a personal advisor to Mubarak’s son and hoped-for successor Gamal. But this seldom effected the editorial policies. “People are surprised at how aggressively anti-regime we were.”

Nevertheless, even the connected backers could not keep the censors away. “Sometimes we would run stories on Mubarak that to me were not at all critical or subversive,” she tells me. “They were just news stories about debates going on. But we would get called in for them, and this only started happening in the year and a half or two years before the uprising, when the political street was becoming bolder.”

On March 12, 2009, Rania published a short article by Abdel-Rahman Hussein (who now writes for The Guardian). It began: “A group of students attacked a police station Sunday night throwing stones and vandalizing allegedly in retaliation for the mistreatment of a fellow student, according to a video posted on the internet. The students are believed to be army cadets studying at the Military Academy.”
Hussein describes the video, in which policemen fire gunshots to ward off the student cadets, who set a motorcycle on fire, and then he quotes the BBC, who had reported that local newspaper editors were given “clear orders not to publish details of the incident because it involves the army.”
Then Hussein quotes a well-known blogger saying, “It's silly that foreign news outlets can report news that local press cannot.”

Three years and a mass uprising later, this article looks like a brave and subtle jab. By putting it out, Rania was asking the censors: are we, Egyptians publishing in English, a ‘foreign news outlet’ or the ‘local press’?

Rania was called into a government office. Before going, she conferred with publisher Hisham Kassem. Kassem had spent decades pushing the envelope, and he knew when it wouldn’t go any farther. “You should not have run the story,” she remembers him telling her. “Look at the Arabic papers. Nobody ran that story. Go in, get out, and make sure you leave on good terms.” She went in, got out, and left on good terms, and three years later the article is still online.

Last week the newspaper folded for good. Rania’s final letter to readers mentioned that she and the staff had been informed “quite abruptly” about the end. A few days later, ‘Egyptian Media Services,’ the people upstairs, wrote ‘After months of grueling negotiations, last-ditch efforts and desperate measures the funds – and time - had run out.’

I ran into Amira, the Business Editor, a few nights after the last publishing day. “How is everyone? Have you seen them?” I asked her. “We’ve been hanging out constantly, every day,” she told me. No doubt, they’re still having that debate about future headlines.

More on Journalism in Egypt
The Tahrir Printing Press
The Scene of the Crime: On Maspero and October 9th
Naguib Mahfouz and the Novel in the Newspaper

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