When the editor-in-chief of Al-Badeel newspaper, Khalid al-Balshy, was told by owners that his efforts were no longer appreciated, he grieved for more than just a lost job.
Among alternative media circles, Al-Badeel was seen as a pioneering project — one with a revolutionary, populist color. Focusing mainly on labor strikes and issues affecting the poorer segments of society, Al-Badeel became a melting pot for journalists seeking a new kind of independent media.
But a new group of investors has taken over the outlet. Many key members of the editorial team have been fired, and its unique editorial perspective seems to be under threat. Balshy and other media figures are now looking for alternative forms of media ownership that can provide an alternative to the interference of the state and private investors.
Established in 2007, Al-Badeel — which itself means “the alternative” in Arabic — faced recurrent financial setbacks as a small group of leftist investors could no longer sustain the newspaper, which employed almost 90 reporters.
The paper was shut down in 2008, but Balshy managed, after selling his own private property, to reopen the media outlet in an online format a few months before the 25 January revolution.
The website picked up quickly following the revolutionary awakening, which attracted a group of Nasserist investors to buy the newspaper, repaying Balshy for his investment and leaving him at the helm of an ambitious editorial team.
“Since then, interventions in the editorial policy were nonstop. The paper’s stance toward the Syrian revolution was not very much liked by the Nasserist owners. Their intervention led me to present my resignation four times, but my resignations were always rejected,” Balshy tells Egypt Independent.
“They believe that what’s happening in Syria is a Western conspiracy against the regime, while I believe it is a conspiracy by the repressive regime against its own people.”
The investors promised Balshy a huge media platform for Al-Badeel, including plans to further develop the website, re-launch the print edition, and establish a news channel.
“Suddenly, [as of two weeks ago,] I was notified that the newspaper is sold to a new Egyptian-Saudi businessman, Mohamed al-Sabban,” Balshy comments.
The new investors told Balshy that there would be no change in the editorial line, but he thinks that his dismissal as well as the firing of a group of the website’s senior editors indicates otherwise. The political affiliation of the new owners is not yet known.
Alternatives face legal pitfalls
Renowned publisher Hesham Kassem thinks that the state-business control over media ownership is a temporary stage that will end when a new class of media-aware owners emerges with a view of media as a real industry serving the interests of the people, rather than a platform for conflicting business and political deadlocks.
“Over the past 60 years, the state was too generous in opening media outlets to protect the ruling class,” Kassem tells Egypt Independent, adding that such an approach has led to a saturated media atmosphere that is neither financially profitable nor serving the general interest of taxpayers.
Media financed by private investors started to emerge in 2005. While it provides an alternative to the ossified state outlets, the intervention of owners and investors in the editorial line of their newspapers is common. Independence from the state does not necessarily mean the independence of the media, as such.
According to Article 52 of Law 96/1996, which governs journalism, an individual and his or her immediate family cannot own more than 10 percent of a newspaper’s shares. The law was an attempt to prevent a concentration of private media power in too few hands.
But interventionist business tycoons have found a way around the regulations.
“Businessmen usually avert the law by buying some shares for other family members who are not their spouses or children, which means that one businessman, through other family members, can control a major share of the newspaper,” Kassem explains, adding that this system is prevalent in most of the privately owned newspapers in Egypt.
Kassem proposes that the only solution is to establish real limits to the percentage of shares owned by one individual, with a designated member of the board monitoring those who attempt to avert the law.
“There has to be a general awareness that business or political intervention does not work in favor of the industry, and actually harms it,” the publisher, who has been working for a long time to establish a newspaper following this proposal, says.
An initiative to establish a news channel independent from state control and business intervention was championed last year by a group of independent media figures, rights activists and intellectuals.
The idea was initially proposed as a news channel owned through an Initial Public Offering (IPO), in which citizens can buy shares in the stock market, averting direct control by the state or established business owners.
“The problem is that we discovered that we cannot control the movement of shares in the market. Any business tycoon can, at any point in time, acquire a major share of the bonds, and hence own the channel,” says lawyer and head of the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information Gamal Eid — one of the idea’s initiators.
In addition, there were mounting fears of possible state control over the channel’s content.
Those who initiated the idea for the channel, dubbed “The People Want,” considered establishing an NGO through which a company could be established to launch the channel.
Egyptian NGO law gives these organizations the right to undertake any activities to achieve the goals for which the NGO was established, including establishing companies, as long as the organization’s trustees do not profit from the company.
“Yet according to the same law, the government has the right to dissolve any NGO without prior notification or any judicial oversight. A state official can simply come up with a government administrative decision and close the channel,” Eid says.
“We have been waiting for more than a year to re-amend the NGO law so that we can start with our new project,” he adds.
Balshy, who has started another project, Al-Bedaya news website, thinks that large-scale ownership of media through IPOs would not work, and he agrees with Kassem that perhaps 10 to 20 owners at the maximum is the most appropriate.
“These owners should be led by responsible journalists who are keen to preserve the independence of the media,” Balshy proposes. “We should also work on liberating state media. This is the media of the taxpayers. It is a long struggle, but it deserves the effort.”