Finding a free space
 
 

As the boundaries of the analogue world of network television and print journalism seem to keep tightening, journalists in Egypt are increasingly fleeing to the Internet in search of greater freedoms, either through personal blogs or more institutionalized media outlets.

And with most mainstream media — whether state-run or privately owned — marching to the beat of the same drum, readers are also going online in search of diversity.

New media outlets like Qoll, Noon Post and Yanair Gate, among others, were born in recent months in reaction against the mainstream media’s increased subservience to the authorities at the expense of journalistic independence.

Qoll (Say) is an online platform that publishes opinion pieces, mostly by young writers. The platform tries to create a space for emerging voices of analysis that have no access to mainstream media, which is generally reserved for older voices.

“With a quick look, we discovered that opinion pages are allocated to certain writers for readers to read in the morning, and the same exact writers occupy airtime at night on television,” says Mohamed Nada, the founder of Qoll.

Nada says this created a need for diversity as well as thoughtful debate, which can be a productive way of turning prevalent polarizations into fruitful discussions.

Similarly, Noon Post is an analytical platform focusing on Egypt and the region. Its mission statement says the outlet hopes to merge classic journalism with content culled from social media.

“We support online content with analysis, opinion articles and info-graphics to give the online content more value and depth,” explains Noon Post founder Mohamed Beshier.

But these media platforms face multiple challenges in Egypt’s current political climate. Defenders of freedom of expression have lamented the growing restrictions on free speech since former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and the installation of a military-backed interim government.

Many of these news websites are trying to challenge those restrictions, including the prevalent practice of self-censorship.

Nada explains that Qoll never rejects an article due to its content. In fact, the team designed a whole editorial system to protect against self-censorship.

“We do not have a chief editor, but rather an editorial council composed of six editors. When we disagree over an article, we vote on whether to publish it,” he says.

“We have no headquarters, so far. We have our laptops and stay wherever there is a place that has access to the Internet. But we are in the process of legalizing our work. Once we become registered, I know we will be monitored, and we are preparing ourselves for that,” Nada adds.

Yanair Gate is also venturing into a different kind of journalism despite the restrictive atmosphere. The online news portal feeds off the contributions of various well known online activists in addition to publishing news coverage. Recently, the portal has focused on police violations and torture accounts of political detainees, an issue that has rarely found its way into traditional media channels following Morsi’s ouster.

Political restrictions aside, there are also economic challenges for these new ventures. Some have reacted by eschewing business models altogether.

“We launched the website at our own expense, and all of those who send contributions to us are not paid and do so on a voluntary basis,” Nada explains.

Others are launching their initiatives with no more than limited funding and a leap of faith, without knowing what the future might bring.

“Noon Post has no big funding. We only have a budget for a year. We managed to secure some funding from friends to cover the expenses of the website launch. We hope in the future to achieve some independence in funding, by offering some services and advertising,” says Beshier.

But even those armed with business plans say it’s exceedingly difficult to find investors interested in independent media ventures. Some have started seeking foreign funding from granting institutions focused on media practices, but others are wary of going down that path.

“We are not yet ready to be accused of receiving foreign funding at this stage. We are thinking to find creative ways to generate money, but this remains a huge challenge,” Nada asserts, without providing additional information.

Going online is an option for journalists who know that while digital outreach can be limited compared to television, it might be the only viable option in a political context where the state treats access to the airwaves as a matter of national security.

When screenwriter and columnist Belal Fadl set out to launch an independent television channel in 2011 through an initial public offering (IPO) that would keep it outside of corporate and state control, he says he suddenly confronted Egypt’s real “deep state.”

“Egypt’s Capital Market Authority released a statement warning citizens from collecting money through IPOs as this matter is organized according to Egyptian law. It was at this point that we discovered that the Egyptian state has kept for itself the role of supervising media. Anything could be privatized, except monitoring the media. No one shall launch a television channel without the approval of the intelligence,” Fadl asserts.

The current law gives the state-owned Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) the supreme authority to launch land television stations, which are currently exclusively state-owned.

Similarly, in print journalism the state controls the vital printing and distribution networks, ultimately rendering all print outlets dependent on the government.

But despite its promise of increased freedoms, the Internet is hardly a safe haven, with the state taking a greater interest given an increasing penetration reaching 39 percent in 2013 in Egypt, and the common use of digital spaces for political mobilization.

The recently passed Constitution now stipulates that the process of launching online news sites and television channels would be organized by law, whereas previously a legal vacuum had allowed such Internet outlets to spontaneously emerge and operate outside the scope of state control.

Article 31 of the Constitution stipulates that “Cyberspace security is an essential component of the economic system and national security. The state shall commit to taking all necessary procedures to protect it, as regulated by the law.”

Ahmed Kheir, director of the Support Center for Information Technology, warns that this article threatens digital freedoms and allows the state to control digital content using national security as a justification.

But Bashier and Nada are not too concerned, betting that an Internet battle could hardly be won by the state.

Nada confidently asserts that “the population on the Internet will win in the end. Yes, the Internet is far from the grassroots, but Internet users are dramatically increasing and they are mostly youth. Those are our target audience.”

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Mai Shams El-Din