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War of words
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 08 - 2005

The independent and state-owned press have been squaring up for a fight. Omayma Abdel-Latif examines the battleground
The modest three-room flat on Tanta Street, Agouza, would not be many people's idea of a buzzing newsroom but this matchbox, to borrow President Hosni Mubarak's description of Al-Jazeera's offices, has sent rather more than ripples through Egypt's journalistic circles.
This is the headquarters of Al-Dostour, a weekly newspaper that has been regularly selling 100,000 copies per issue, no mean feat in the crowded Egyptian market. And in pursuit of such circulation figures it has left few, if any stones, unturned.
"We wanted to move beyond the confines within which the Egyptian press has been held hostage for many years," says Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of Al-Dostour and of Sawt Al-Umma, another independent weekly. "For us there are no holy cows, no ceilings, which is one reason why I would not be surprised if we were forced to shut down."
From Mubarak's health to the influence of the first lady and Gamal Mubarak's wealth, Al-Dostour has trail-blazed a path across hitherto uncrossable red lines. It is a path now being followed by several new publications that have hit the newsstands. Yet Al-Dostour remains the leader of the pack, its increasingly sarcastic tone sparing no one.
Al-Dostour 's approach to political and social issues, and its apparent public appeal, has fanned the flames of an ongoing battle between the state-owned press and its independent rivals. The war of words has been brewing for some time now, with accusations and counter- accusations being flung back and forth by op-ed writers and columnists to the extent that the press-war has at times become the story.
For papers like Al-Dostour and Sawt Al-Umma, the job of the national press should be to act as a watchdog over the government. It should not be part of the pro-state propaganda machine, assiduously promoting the line favoured by the regime. For columnists in the state-owned papers their independent colleagues have consistently undermined the ethics of the profession and resorted to a "street language" unsuitable for discussing the issues at hand.
Beneath the tit-for-tat exchange of allegations and the hyped-up, opinion-loaded articles lie serious questions not only over the future of state- owned papers but about the nature of the relationship between the state and the national press.
The debate gained urgency with last month's appointment of several new editors-in-chief in the state-run press. The changes provoked a flood of rumour and speculation about just how the new editors had been selected.
Al-Dostour, Sawt Al-Umma and Al-Osbou took the line that the newly promoted chief editors had been elevated for one reason -- to lend the weight of their papers behind President Mubarak's election campaign. Not so, said the new editors-in-chief, a denial that has not wholly been supported by subsequent developments.
"[Independent papers] are plotting to tarnish the reputation of state-owned press institutions," opined one new editor.
"These publications," wrote Mohamed El-Shamma of Akher Saa, "are seeking to undermine organisations that are owned by the people and provide a window to the outside world and the bridge between the ruler and the ruled."
This "vile campaign", he continued, was intended to damage national publications and pave the way for their takeover by businessmen.
"This is, first and foremost, a battle over professional standards," responds Khaled El-Sergani, media editor of Al-Dostour. "It is about the style of writing, the kind of issues to cover and how to cover them. We give readers a newspaper that is connected with reality and reflects its problems in a language they understand."
The challenge, he insists, is to "create a new kind of journalism which Egyptians can identify with politically".
If that involves covering issues that just a year ago would have been taboo, and covering them in a way that mixes conventional, standard Arabic with street slang, then both Al-Dostour and Sawt Al-Umma are indeed trend setters.
But few really believe that it is the language used in reporting that is at the heart of the conflict. The increasingly acute polarisation between Egypt's two journalistic camps is, rather, about politics.
"We are," says Eissa, "often seen to be the mouthpiece of dissent groups like Kifaya, which is something I wouldn't deny. But I think we can also claim to be a truly national newspaper in the sense that views from across the political spectrum find space in our newspaper."
This has become an issue of growing concern for the public as the presidential elections of 7 September, and November's parliamentary elections, approach.
Some state-owned publications are already well-ensconced on the elections bandwagon. Last Monday the weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef launched a daily edition that will run throughout the elections period. "Neither with the government nor with the opposition," was the underlying policy of its election coverage, the magazine trumpeted proudly. Al-Ahram has also begun publishing a supplement, Al-Risala, (The Message) covering election-related issues, with the first two issues making it clear that its sympathies lie with the NDP incumbent President Hosni Mubarak.
There have, though, been some serious attempts at soul-searching among the state-owned press regarding its role. Mohamed Abul- Hadeed, the new chairman of Dar Al-Tahrir, acknowledged in a press conference held at the Press Syndicate soon after he was appointed, that grave mistakes had been made in the running of state-owned papers, with corruption having eaten up resources and circulation figures dwindling.
Karam Gabr, the new chairman of Rose El-Youssef, a man not especially renowned for his criticisms of the regime, tackled the relationship between the state and the national press in a recent editorial, pointing out that it was about time "the National Democratic Party established a newspaper to defend its policies and explain its platform".
"Doing so," explained Gabr, "would spare the national press the embarrassing situation it finds itself in now... promoting NDP policies and explaining its achievements. The national press should not consider itself the self-appointed mouthpiece of the government... in doing so it will lose credibility and become a real burden."


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