from al Ahram,

Media overhaul

By Salama A Salama


The press is in crisis. There is no denying that. A balance between freedom and responsibility is badly needed. But this has to take place as part of a larger effort. Taken hostage by outdated laws and forces of the past, caught in an entangled web of hapless politics, our press is staring into the mirror of despair.Modern media is taking over. Television and the Internet are making inroads into a territory that once belonged exclusively to the print press. The press is fighting for dear life with its hands tied behind its back. It is hounded by powers that wish to keep it in its place, and even push it back to where they think it belongs. The press is being pushed back into the era of mass mobilisation, the time when its main function was to praise the powers that be.

Faced by such threats, journalists are making things worse. They fight among themselves. They fight over imagined material or moral gains. And they don’t seem to see the abyss lying ahead. The future has no place for a press devoid of credibility. The future has no place for journalists who curry favour with rulers. If things keep going this way, journalists will end up being mere clerks, or informers, working for a pittance in impoverished private newspapers. Or they’ll go looking for piecemeal work at Arab press offices and television stations.

If the clash between the nationalist and independent press continues, both will lose. Our newspapers need to turn into financially viable and politically independent institutions. They need to modernise their management, introduce transparent financing, embrace the latest technology and train their reporters. We cannot allow the press to disintegrate into the dark recesses of a professional vacuum. We cannot allow the name-calling and the grovelling — all of which was evident in the Press Syndicate’s elections — to go on. Otherwise, we will end up with worthless newspapers that no one wants to read, and this goes for both the national and independent press.

Mass mobilisation can no longer be the mission of the press. The restricted freedoms of the 1960s and 1970s cannot come back. These are new times. We cannot embrace the market economy and freedom one day and eat our words the next. The nature of our political system is going to change, and so will the press. We cannot waste time on half measures. We need to overhaul the entire media system, laws and all. Let me give you one example. According to current laws, you can set up a newspaper with LE250,000 — less than the price of an apartment. How can you expect a newspaper to pay salaries, insurance and taxes on such meagre assets? How do you expect such a paper to resist corruption?

There are people in the media who still do business the old way. They wait for orders from the information minister, the Policies Committee, or the Interior Ministry, and carry them out. This cannot last for long. Also, the current professional standards of our journalists leave much to be desired. What happened to accurate reporting, to balanced writing, to objective views, to refined language?

This country is thinking about the economy all the time. Perhaps it is time we think a little about the press. We’re no longer competitive. We have fallen behind other media in the region. This can change, but only when we start moving in the right direction.

We need an independent press. And we need a financially viable press.