State-owned papers’ management up for grabs

In the run-up to the presidential election, the Shura Council began setting criteria for appointing the leaders of state-run newspapers, which will control a main conduit of Egyptian’s knowledge about the political state of affairs. The door was opened for nominations to the posts on Tuesday for one week.

Chief editors will be selected according to standards that have been agreed on by the Shura Council’s information and culture committee, the Journalists Syndicate and the Supreme Press Council. But the outcome of this selection process is believed to be political, according to observers who say the old regime’s practice of making state media subservient to a ruling authority is still present.

According to the criteria, applicants should have spent 15 years at the institution whose publications they seek to be in charge of.  They should have worked for the last ten years in a row without taking unpaid leaves. They should also be selected from inside the publication itself.

Further, applicants should not have been involved in selling advertisements. They should not have been referred to disciplinary councils by the syndicate or have been found guilty of depravity.

They cannot be involved in normalization with Israel, and should not have taken part in corrupting political life or working as media advisors under the former regime

If there are not any applicants in-house who meet the required conditions, then candidates can be chosen from outside.

The committee which will select the chief editors will be presided over by head of the Shura Council’s information and culture committee Fathy Shehab of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. It will also include three heads of other committees, such as the sport and youth committee, human development committee and the constitutional committee, as well as a representative of the information and culture committee. Two mass communication professors and other prominent journalistic figures will also join.

Dozens of journalists protested on Tuesday before the Journalists Syndicate against these standards. Demonstrators rejected that chief editors will be selected by a committee led by the Shura Council and not through elections.

Moreover, observers have raised concerns about the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council interfering in the process.

“The Freedom and Justice paper has recently published several stories and articles that talk about purging press institutions of liberals and leftists,” Salah Eissa, assistant secretary general of the Supreme Press Council, told Egypt Independent in mid-June.

The emergence of the Brotherhood’s influence into the press would be a novelty in an arena traditionally reserved for either leftist and liberal journalists or pro-regime journalists.

The legacy of the ruling party’s control over state media dates back to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency, when his Arab Socialist Union handpicked the state media’s leaders after they were nationalized in 1960. Under former President Anwar Sadat, the Cabinet made appointments after consulting with the president. A 1979 amendment gave the Shura Council that power.

A common feature of chief editors throughout this legacy is their close relation with the president. Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a close adviser to Nasser and Sadat and a prominent journalist, remained the chief editor of Al-Ahram for 17 years from 1957 through 1974. But his differences with Sadat on some issues cost him his post.

After Hosni Mubarak assumed power in 1981, Law 96/1996, known as the Journalism Authority Law, was issued. It set the term of a chief editor at three years and that of a chairperson at four, though several kept their positions longer. Ibrahim Nafie, known for his pro-Mubarak affinities, remained Al-Ahram’s chairman for 21 years.

In 2005, several prominent chief editors were dismissed and replaced with others who ardently defended the policies of the ruling National Democratic Party. State security is said to have intervened in the choice of these institutions’ leaders to guarantee unwavering loyalty to the regime.

After the breakout of the revolution, former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf replaced 18 top officials at state-run press institutions. The changes, approved by the ruling military council, were understood to be temporary until Parliament was elected. All figures considered to be pro-Mubarak were replaced, including chief editors Osama Saraya of Al-Ahram, Momtaz al-Qutt of Akhbar al-Youm and Abdallah Kamal of Rose al-Youssef.

If current discussions among concerned institutions are any indicator, those papers will have new leaders once again.

Seven members of the Journalists Syndicate walked out of a meeting a few weeks ago with Shura Council MPs who convened to set the appointment criteria. Protesting members said the criteria were being set by people outside the profession.

The Shura Council, which owns eight state-run press institutions, according to a 1979 constitutional amendment, has the power to appoint the chief editors of the 55 publications issued by these institutions. The same amendment made the Shura Council speaker the head of the Supreme Press Council. This amended legislation stayed in the Constitutional Declaration issued by the ruling military council in March 2011.

Under the old regime, this legislation assured the NDP control over state press. Fraudulent parliamentary elections guaranteed the party most of the seats. But in the freer elections this year, the FJP secured a plurality of seats in Parliament, prompting fears that its control over state media is looming.

Eissa said the Brothers are disgruntled by criticism of their performance by state media.

“But they don’t have many professional journalists to fill those posts. In the end, they will choose from among the choices available,” he said.

According to Suleiman Gouda, the chief editor of the liberal Wafd Party’s daily, FJP member and Shura Council Speaker Ahmed Fahmy said he would solicit the help of security bodies to investigate the reputations and financial positions of applicants for the chief editor posts, a sign that methods of the former regime are still at play.

“Controlling state-run papers means controlling the biggest media tool for the state,” Gouda added, explaining that the Brotherhood will have a vested interest in this type of control.

Eissa said FJP leaders are reluctant to discuss the future of press institutions or methods to separate them or their editorial policies from their owners, as is the case in most countries.

“In the past, the Supreme Press Council’s affiliation with the Shura Council caused state-owned papers to be followers of the regime. Today, the situation could get more dangerous: These papers will be subservient to the party that rises to power every number of years,” said Eissa.

FJP Shura Council member Seddiq Abdel Maqsoud has rejected accusations that his party is seeking to monopolize state-run papers.

“Over three months, we have been holding meetings attended by members from the Journalists Syndicate, chief editors of state newspapers and representatives from the Supreme Press Council. Most of them have agreed to those standards after lengthy discussions,” he added, saying all current controversies are “fabricated.”

Abdel Maqsoud also said individuals and institutions have been given the chance to provide nominations without the interference of the FJP.

Many of these institutions also face financial hurdles. Fahmy had received reports from the Central Auditing Organization and other bodies monitoring public funds that detailed financial corruption within state-run press institutions, where debts are estimated at LE10 billion.

Some of these institutions have recently seen wide-scale protests by employees over low pay and leadership policies. Abdel Azim Hammad, the former chairman of Al-Ahram who was appointed after the revolution, resigned after protests by reporters who objected to some staffing changes.

“The entire future of state-run papers will be at stake if all of the conditions are not reviewed,” Gouda said.

Yasser al-Zayat, chief editor of state-run magazine Al-Ezaa wal Television, said the first step should be to transfer press institutions’ ownership to the people. An alternative would be to issue a law allowing the general assemblies of state-run papers to elect their boards, which would appoint chief editors.

Eissa said reforming press institutions requires one of three solutions: to privatize them and keep a certain stake for the state, to transform them into holding companies or to establish a transparent mechanism allowing employees to own half of the institution they work for.

“The solutions are known, but political will to enforce one of them is what we need,” he said.

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