Silencing English-language media in Egypt

Dina K. Hussein writes: “It is always the fixer who dies,” is the title of a seminal article by George Packer that appeared in The New Yorker in 2009 to mourn the death of Sultan Munadi, a local fixer who lost his life in a commando raid in Afghanistan. The raid that ended Munadi’s life took place in order to free foreign journalists who were captivated by the Taliban. The foreign correspondent was freed, the fixer died, and the operation was deemed a success. This tragedy and Packer’s dramatic title are fitting curtain raisers to the struggle of local English-language media in Egypt.

For decades, local journalists who had the necessary language skills helped foreign correspondents working for Western news organizations to tell Egypt’s story to the world. Yet, as Packer remarks, this fixer-foreign correspondent relationship has always been tense, punctuated by a power imbalance. This imbalance in the journalistic establishment pays homage to the classical inequalities of power that dictate who gets to produce knowledge. A plain analysis of this condition speaks of a Western journalistic establishment that possess the power and money to send its correspondents to gaze at the troubled Middle East and provide the world with the knowledge base of this part of the world through narrating the story of the locals.

The local English-language media, however, have played a vital role in partially mending this power imbalance by allowing Egyptian journalists to tell Egypt’s story to the world, not as fixers who might or might not get their due credit, but as primary storytellers.

Local independent English-language media outlets, such as Cairo Times, Daily News Egypt, and Egypt Independent have provided local journalists with an opportunity to tell their country’s narrative in their own voice. Additionally, these media outlets have created a unique space for local and foreign journalists, editors and translators to interact and work together to report critically and with integrity, breaking away from the rigidity of foreign/local dichotomies and the associated power imbalance.

In the process, these outlets became a go-to source for international media organizations interested in covering Egypt, mediating complex realities about the country to the world. Often, they acted as transitional platforms for young foreign journalists hoping to better understand the story ahead of getting opportunities in international outlets. But more importantly, they produced a journalism that informs media practice in Egypt in the way stories are covered and issues are represented.

These local English-language outlets, however, have faced numerous challenges over the years. While many of those challenges are financial in nature and pertain to the viability of their business models, there have also been critical political restrictions.

Independent journalists in general have long struggled against the Egyptian state’s oppression. Even though English-language publications have enjoyed a higher ceiling of freedom compared to Arabic media outlets, they have often been intimidated by censors. Cairo Times, the leading English-language paper in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was a pioneer in criticizing Hosni Mubarak’s regime and often grappled with the censors physically removing the paper from the market in heightened points of confrontation. One of the legacies of Cairo Times is that it groomed many of the leading journalists and media experts on the Middle East today. But its unfortunate closure due to financial hardships is not a distant memory since the state’s stifling of freedom of expression has not subsided with the revolution. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email