Reform interrupted

Egypt's most prominent state-run newspaper launched a website to shake up the status quo. Then came a revolution. And a coup. What is the future for Al Bawaba?

Different realities When protesters took to the streets on January 25, 2011, Al Ahram decided not to cover them. Al Bawaba, meanwhile, one of Al Ahram’s websites, covered the protests from the start. (Moises Saman via Magnum Photos)

When Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef arrived at a Cairo courthouse on March 31, Al Bawaba, the upstart website of the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper, covered his every move. The day before, Youssef had been charged with defaming the presidency and Islam. Now the opposition icon, flanked by bodyguards, headed to court surrounded by supporters.

Over the next few hours, Al Bawaba posted more than a dozen updates of the Youssef story. Several of the posts rehashed amusing bits from Youssef’s popular Twitter feed. In a media environment notorious for misinformation, Al Bawaba also provided rare proof of its source, including screenshots of the tweets.

It sounds routine, but for Al Ahram it wasn’t. Egyptians who only read the Al Ahram newspaper got none of this news. The paper’s coverage on April 1 included three sentences about Youssef posting bail. The news came at the end of a page-five article about an opposition sit-in at the courthouse, which the headline described as full of “clashes” and “violence.” Egypt’s largest state-run outlet had marginalized the story; the paper’s digital sibling, meanwhile, seemed to be operating on a dissonant plane.

This divide is the somewhat unanticipated consequence of an effort by Al Ahram management to achieve digital reform without fully revolutionizing from within. And it is a split that has persisted, with some significant adaptations, since the July 3 coup that toppled Morsi.

Journalists and editors describe Al Bawaba as the Al Ahram alternative that is better suited to its youthful, digital-era audience—the same storied brand, but with more Western-style habits, nonstop coverage, and fewer limits on what is considered fit to post. For young journalists in Egypt, the vibrant Arab blogosphere that has emerged over the last decade represents a certain freedom from repression—and many of the journalists are conscious that their old media was part of the problem. “I don’t work in the Al Ahram newspaper,” Amira Wahba, 30, a reporter for Al Bawaba, stressed back in February. “I work in the website for Al Ahram. There is a difference.” (Al Ahram has another website that is mainly a replica of the print edition: a largely unabashed reflection of the ruling regime, be it Islamist or military.)

Al Bawaba’s journalists acknowledge that, although official censorship was less commonplace in the convoluted wake of the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak and installed Morsi, political, military, and professional limitations ingrained in Al Ahram (and Egyptian news coverage generally) have continued to shape what and how they write. “To some extent we have freedom,” Wahba says, choosing her words carefully while seated outside the Al Bawaba newsroom. “But it is not enough freedom.” She attributes these persistent pressures to a commonly heard refrain: “The regime is the same as before.”

Despite the end of Mubarak’s reign, much of his media regime—a notorious network of legal codes, political pressure, economic and military interests—remains. These forces manifest in Egyptian journalism’s haphazard style: direct quotes, multiple sources, and factchecking are not standard in a newsroom culture long characterized by low pay, little training, few worker rights, and rampant conspiracy theories.

Al Bawaba journalists say they are trying to have a more professional approach to news (England’s Guardian is an aspirational model). But they are working against a deep societal distrust of the media. “The people passed 30 years of the Mubarak rule under self-censorship,” lamented Al Ahram copy editor Mofreh Sarhan. “To the extent that you sit in your room and lock the door, you still self-censor.”

The issue transcends the basic print-digital divide that is now familiar to newsrooms around the world. Al Ahram’s approach to news is a product of the Egyptian media regime, which until the 2000s allowed only state and party media to report the news, thereby stifling the development of, and respect for, a culture of independence, innovation, and transparency. Since the 1952 coup that created the modern state of Egypt, Al Ahram’s leadership has been closely aligned with the state propaganda regime. Today the organization is an aging and financially troubled beast—a conglomerate of more than a dozen publications (each with its own website), a publishing house, an advertising agency, a research center, and more. Founded in 1875, Al Ahram’s downtown headquarters is in disarray, its public image shattered by the uprising, its newsrooms overstaffed and underproductive, the years of corruption, patronage, and self-censorship a toxic stain.

Despite this tarnished heritage, Al Ahram is also not one-dimensional. Journalists recall with pride the storied national figures who walked the halls of the headquarters. For over a century the newspaper’s name has been synonymous with Egypt, its news and views read throughout Egypt and the Arab world. And there are journalists there who have a genuine interest in professionalism. Several led a failed push for institutional reform during the revolution.

Al Ahram 2.0?

Al Bawaba launched on October 6, 2010. Al Ahram editors chose this date to coincide with commemoration of the 1973 October War. Omar Samy, chairman of the Al Ahram board, attributed Al Bawaba’s birth to shifting priorities: The leadership wanted more local content—the print edition had only two pages—and a website for breaking and 24-hour news.

It was a big change for a place where many journalists still wrote their stories by hand and working computers with internet access were relatively rare. Abdel Monem Said Aly, a former chairman of the Al Ahram board, was a main force behind the digital initiative. He envisioned Al Bawaba as part of a larger transformation of Al Ahram into an integrated media company where a central newsroom fed content to a network of mobile, radio, video, print, and online platforms.

Dubbed the Al Ahram development project, under Said’s leadership Al Ahram spent millions of Egyptian pounds to digitize its archives and create several niche sites, including Al Ahram Online, a 24-hour English-language news site.

The project struggled from the start. Many journalists had little digital experience or interest, and the website’s faulty design led to technological glitches. Said says further digital developments were planned for Al Ahram—and deferred when the revolution came.

But for Sabah Hamamou, Al Bawaba’s first multimedia editor, management’s claims that it was sincere about the project were insufficient. “Nobody had a sincere vision of where we wanted to take Al Ahram,” she says, calling the reforms cosmetic. Hamamou, a 2009-10 Knight-Wallace fellow in the United States, brought a passion for multimedia storytelling to Al Bawaba. She was soon frustrated with the lack of resources—a stark contrast to management’s grand spending on things that didn’t really benefit the journalists. She recalled a constant shortage of working computers, internet connections, camera cards, and even drinking water in the office. “In the beginning there was really good hopes that we are developing this tiny spot, and that it will spread to other parts of the institution,” she says. But instead of rewarding journalistic merit or empowering the website to do the kind of reporting that was envisioned, cronyism and a lack of vision from management was typical, she says.

A political calculation

There also was a political motivation behind the creation of Al Bawaba. With blogging, online journalism, and competing private newspapers on the rise in Egypt, the government-controlled version of events was increasingly hard to sell to readers and viewers. Both Samy and Said described their work with Al Bawaba as an attempt to bypass Al Ahram’s entrenched professional limitations that were deemed too large to address head on. They acknowledged the institution’s outdated coverage, but despite their leadership positions they also distanced themselves from responsibility. “We felt that the editorial content in the print paper did not express what the people wanted,” says Samy. “Al Bawaba could give more freedom. There aren’t the same restrictions as in the print paper.”

Tarek Atia, a former training manager for the US Agency for International Development-backed Media Development Program, worked with Al Ahram on its digital development. “I saw so many ambitious young college graduates come into Al Ahram with the passion to do good journalism, and very soon they hit brick walls,” says Atia, a former editor of Al Ahram Weekly who now runs a commercial training business.

In comparison, he felt a streak of independence developing among Al Bawaba journalists. In this new media space, the borders were still negotiable. “The [Al Ahram] newsroom was functioning as it always does,” says Atia. “Meanwhile, there was this much smaller newsroom that seemed to be really fast moving.” Al Bawaba hired journalists from other private papers who had digital training. In particular, many came from Al Badeel, an opposition paper that abruptly closed in 2009.

From the beginning, the site’s relative independence manifested in a more liberal use of certain phrases. In the print newspaper, for example, under Mubarak the Muslim Brotherhood had to be referred to as the “banned group.” At Al Bawaba the rule did not apply.

Al Bawaba Managing Editor Samy El Kamhawy attributed this relative openness to a generation gap: The older ruling men at first dismissed the importance of online readers. He says that he and Abdallah Abdel-Salam, the site’s editor in chief, made Al Bawaba’s editorial policy and style guide largely independent of print-side policies. Like at other Egyptian newspapers, such guides are not codified in writing. “We know it between ourselves,” Kamhawy says, “and we teach it to anyone new through practice.”

Atia suggested Al Ahram’s decision to not integrate the digital side was another way for management to mediate between continuity and change—a common approach to reform in Egypt. “The idea of doing a kind of parallel process perhaps tries to avoid some of the conflicts that may emerge if you try to change an already existing thing,” Atia says. “But that creates other problems, because there is a kind of inefficiency to it. You are spending double the resources, and with only limited reform you are going to face resistance.”

Reform, and revolution, interrupted

When protestors took to the streets on January 25, 2011, Al Ahram purposively chose not to cover them. On January 26 the front page dealt with protests, but in Lebanon. Al Bawaba, meanwhile, covered the protests from the start. “Peaceful marches of hundreds of citizens in the streets of Cairo and Giza,” read the first headline on January 25. As thousands continued to gather in cities across Egypt, Al Bawaba posted updates, providing visibility for protesters outside the Cairo-centric news cycle.

But when the police brutality began later that day, Al Bawaba’s coverage reflected its Al Ahram loyalties. Posts cited ministers and anonymous “security sources” accusing protestors of starting the fight. The police’s response of tear gas, water canons, arrests, and worse, the news narrative went, was necessary to restore order. A story published later in the day a story, citing only an “official security force,” accused the Muslim Brotherhood and “hidden hands” of instigating the violence.

From the start, then, coverage of the revolution embodied the entrenched duality of Al Ahram’s digital space. This became even more apparent after the July coup that ousted President Morsi. In a flash, the military largely reverted to Mubarak-era tactics, repressing Islamist-affiliated media and arresting opposition voices. Journalists from state and private media alike quickly aligned with the military, too, either by will or out of a sense of professional necessity. Al Bawaba’s approach continues to be distinct from the rest of Al Ahram, but the differences are more subtle, at least for now.

The shooting death of Al Ahram journalist Tamer Abdel Raouf at a military checkpoint on August 19 is a case in point. Al Bawaba posted its first report of the killing shortly after it occurred: “Al Ahram Bureau Chief Martyred in Beheira . . . and Hamed El Barbary from Al Gomhoreya injured.”

The story quoted El Barbary saying that Abdel Raouf was killed when soldiers at the checkpoint opened fire on his approaching vehicle. The incident occurred just after 7pm, the start of the military curfew—which, the article reminded readers, excluded journalists.

Forty-five minutes later, Al Bawaba had another short post quoting Khaled Al Balshy, an opposition journalist newly elected to the Egyptian Journalist Syndicate, demanding an immediate investigation. This was not the first incident, El Balshy said, in which the military clashed with journalists past curfew.

At midnight, Al Bawaba posted the military’s response: “Armed Forces mourn the Al Ahram Bureau Chief . . . And stresses: We did not know his identity and we dealt with it as a breach of the curfew.” The story claimed, contrary to El Barbary’s statements, that Abdel Raouf posed a threat: He was driving fast and didn’t follow checkpoint protocol. In the days that followed, the site continued to cover the case’s development.

When the Al Ahram print edition finally weighed on August 21, two days after the shooting, the page-four story had a different tone: “In our country’s troubled time . . . ,” it began, then provided only the military account and a bit of praise for Abdel Raouf. A second story, printed on the same page, had this headline: “The Military Forces express their condolences to the journalists.” The article quoted the military, via its Facebook page, and delivered the military version that was nearly verbatim to Al Bawaba’s account—but without comment from union leaders or El Barbary.

In its first three years, Al Bawaba journalists have had to contend with both political and digital revolutions while trying to carve out their own professional space. Abdel Said and Omar Samy describe Al Bawaba as an Al Ahram success story. In 2012, Forbes Middle East named the Al Ahram websites, including Al Bawaba, the most popular online news outlets in the region. But the success is tempered by the conflicting realities that confront the journalists who work there. “After the revolution I was afraid to say I was from Al Ahram,” recalls Ahmed Hafez, a reporter for Al Bawaba. Like other journalists I interviewed for this piece, Hafez says he would often hide his Al Ahram affiliation while interviewing in the streets. “If I had said I was from Al Ahram, I would have been beaten,” he says. “It affects your work.”

That’s the day-to-day reality on the ground. Sabah Hamamou, though, sees a more existential threat to Al Bawaba in the resurgence of the old Al Ahram shackles since the July coup—especially as freedom of the press, once among the revolution’s demands, continues to face entrenched barriers, no matter who is in power. “If you want to reform one spot, and it does not spread to other spots,” Hamamou says, “it’s very hard to keep that part reformed.”

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Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist and writer with a focus on the Middle East and Africa.