10/23/2012 01:02 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

Media Is the Key for Egyptian Transition

Discussing the state of democratic transition in Egypt is equal to talking about the tough challenges its media faces. Many of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, at all the shores, and corners of the Mediterranean, hold our breath before the utterly crucial and fragile process of a new Egyptian constitution, and we all know that without a free, independent media, hopes can easily turn into nightmares.

"Unchain our minds" is the common phrase you hear from the colleagues in Cairo, the intellectual hub of the Arab world, and the very epicenter of the changes that will shape the vast region in the wake of the "awakening."

Corruption, widespread in the state-run and private media, is the key word that many of them return to, and they also know they are in the beginning of a very painful journey, entirely open-ended, towards freedom.

In a timely conference, neatly organized by the Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism at TU Dortmund University, Germany, and the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists, which brought us together, a more than two dozens of Egyptian journalists and a small group of German colleagues and myself as the only one from Turkey -- in the capacity of ombudsman and reader representative of the Sabah daily -- we had the chance to meet them -- many of them women, curious, keen and more vocal than the men -- and listen to their description of tough working conditions and confusion about what to do next.

They knew it had to take a crisis to find opportunities and solutions. But in a huge country, ruled by an iron fist and fear for decades, they are also aware that the culture of journalism the authoritarian regime helped shape has many dimensions, one more difficult than the other.
State-controlled media is swollen beyond imagination. A colleague told us that the state broadcaster had at the moment more than 42,000 employees! "It's the same amount that the armies of three mid-scale Arab countries have," she said, with a typical, soft Egyptian irony.
This creates uncertainties on jobs and loyalties that have had nothing with the profession. It is a trap, she warned, because those who take over the power now can manipulate these weaknesses and use this work force for their own selfish and political purposes in order to cement their position.

Nobody, far worse, had any idea of what would be done to liberate the state-run media from its ancient role as the extended arm of the repressive regime.

In Egypt, the recent developments help us to witness vast changes in the media landscape. There are now over 600 publications, of which 55-60 are national dailies and many others are regional newspapers. Bloggers are influential as the ones keeping the revolutionary flame alive and social media's strength has already created a high awareness among the youth.

The numbers of private television stations are exponentially rising and asserting influence as the new political players -- the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, liberals and others -- enter the scene. But, as more than four or five speakers in our two day long meeting warned, they are now falling under the control of new, greedy media owners, who are willing to be the servants of new powers and expect favors in return. It may mean a new era of propaganda warfare, rather than citizen journalism.

When we speak about the issue, we find ourselves in the midst of dense corruption, either in terms of a legacy of old repression or as the newcomers' heavy baggage, which raises the concerns further.

No structural, strategic, pure and democratic changes to make media serve democratization seem to have been placed on the agenda -- at least not yet. Corruption is a developing staory: it is so visible and open that at least three of the CEOs of newspapers, we were told, have fled the country and sought shelter in Britain and Switzerland.

There is gross inefficiency. In the influential Al-Ahram daily's economy section, I heard to my shock that there are an astounding 150 people employed in this department while the paper allots a mere half page to the economy section every day. "The desk editor does not even know who works for him," revealed another colleague.

Fear of power and dislike for truth is also there. "When I brought a political analysis to the desk editor, he told me that he can only post it online. 'It has too much information for print, too sensitive,' he said" -- another anecdote that exposed the absurdities of media life.
"Every day I bring the truth of the poor and needy on paper to my news section, and the editors change the reality," told us another one. (To my German colleagues present at the meeting, these were elements of culture shock, but to me, as a Turkish journalist, they came as no surprise.)

But the gloom was met by hope as well. Many Egyptian colleagues did admit the fact that this was the moment to start. And some saw the bright side of professional life to be part of change.

One of them summed up the positive points. He told us that the Egyptian media -- particularly the wave of blogs -- was the driver of "standing up" to the old regime and from January 2011 onwards the public increasingly felt its credibility. Because of this, its pressure for media accountability is higher.

He told us that it expanded its spectrum of coverage by 70 percent on many more issues, improving also diversity and infrastructure.

The media has now started to refer also to unofficial sources; a breaking point, he said. But, still, as he revealed, still only 10 percent or so of the reports are accurate, and employment conditions and job securities are very weak.

When I left after a very exciting, engaging two-day conference, I had two points in mind to share with you:

If Egypt is key for Arab transformation, its media need all the assistance for its constitutional guarantees -- from the West, the U.S. and the EU, as well as from Turkey because the latter is seen as an inspiration in many aspects -- and for its national code of ethics and effective self-regulation mechanisms.