New independent newspapers have appeared in Egypt in the last few years. This has not only made the newspaper scene a more lively and freer one, but it also represents a challenge for the official press, which has been losing readership and has financial problems.
“In the last few years we have had many independent and private newspapers that are actually competing strongly with the national (official) ones and challenging their existence,” says Salama Ahmad Salama, former Managing Editor at Al Ahram and one of the most respected columnists in the newspaper.
“The market is changing slowly and this will give the national press time to change. I think pressures from journalists inside the national foundations will lead to this reform,” says Ahmed El Naggar, a researcher in economy at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies who published a study on the finances of the official press.
“Although there has been a circulation decline since the 80’s, the national press continues to be the market leaders,” he says.
Have there been changes in what is seen as propaganda tools for the ruling party and the presidency? “It is happening, although slowly. Now, you can see articles in Al Ahram that you would not see before,” says El Naggar.
However, during the last elections, readers went to independent newspapers to find better and fairer coverage. According to an article published by Al Ahram Weekly in September 2005, an official paper lost 150,000 readers in that period.
This is benefiting some new independent publications that see their circulations steadily increase. “New independent papers are a threat because national newspapers are not trying to compete at the same level as them. There is still strong commitment to the instructions they get from the government or the ruling National Democratic Party, and are unable to get rid of all their inhibitions,” says Salama.
“The main challenge is that these new newspapers are not tied to the government: they are professional journalists doing their work backed by private funds. On the editorial side, these papers are freer,” says Salama.
El Naggar agrees when he says that the head of the official press is still more concerned about satisfying the authorities than developing a profitable business. The first step to be done seems clear to him.
“If they raise the ceiling of freedom they will be able to keep their position and increase their territory,” he says.
However, he says that a lot of the journalists working for new independent newspapers come from the national press, and continue to work for both the independent and the official press. It is the pressure of these journalists, who are enjoying more freedom of expression, who will lead to changes in the national newspapers, he says.
When it comes to the administrative side, debts are the major problem for official newspapers. El Naggar estimates them at 8 billion Egyptian pounds (USD 1.4 billion). That debt might have influenced President Mubarak when he said, in his re-election speech in September last year, that he was considering press privatization.
“Unless Al Ahram and the rest do not try to modernize their way of thinking, financing and working, they will not survive. And they will only survive if they get privatized, because by privatizing them you can get rid of all the loads they are carrying and work in a modern basis,” says Salama.
Nevertheless, privatizing the propaganda organ of the government seems difficult to achieve. “Privatization is a political will and I do not think there is a real one,” says Salama.