Revolution yields no credibility boost for Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper

Experts say the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram must become more ‘independent’ to earn its readers’ trust

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As Egypt marks the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the credibility of the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram is still in question.

“Al-Ahram is considered to be a nationalist paper, and the problem with these papers is that the government is largely in control as it backs it financially,” Sharif Darwish, a journalism professor at Cairo University, told Al Arabiya News.
Egypt’s second-oldest newspaper was supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood during its rule.

“At the time, there was some erroneous information,” said Huda Badran, a political activist and head of the Cairo-based NGO Alliance for Arab Women. “Some pictures of protesters, who were in fact against the Brotherhood, were portrayed as their own supporters.”

However, soon after the ouster of President Mohammed Mursi on July 3, 2013, the newspaper purged its chairman Mamdouh al-Wali because he was appointed by the Islamist leader.

A reshuffle in Jan. 2014 also saw the sacking of its two main editors-in-chief, who were appointed by parliament, which was dominated by Islamists at the time.

Their successors support the army-backed interim government, which blacklisted the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

“During the Brotherhood rein, all radicals from left to right started writing in the paper, including those belonging to terrorist organizations,” Ali Sayed, an editor at Al-Ahram’s central desk told Al Arabiya News.

In early January, the newspaper’s staunchly anti-Brotherhood former editor-in-chief Mohamed Abdel-Hady was reinstated.

The new chairman, Ahmed Sayed el-Naggar, who was appointed at the same time as Abdel-Hady, is also a Brotherhood opponent.

Naggar has promised to shore up Al-Ahram’s credibility, but Sayed said: “The people chosen still represent the interest of the government or the regime... Al-Ahram will see its demise after 10 years.”

Revenue and competition

The newspaper is said to be hurting financially due to shrinking circulation and stiff competition.

From 2012 until Nov. 2013, profits from advertising fell from 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($145 million) to 200 million pounds ($29 million), said Sayed.

This year, the newspaper had to borrow 150 million pounds ($21.5 million) from the Egypt National Bank, Sayed said, adding: “The paper has 1-billion-pound outstanding debt for ads.”

Darwish, who described the paper as Egypt’s biggest, said its “loyalty is to the governing rulers. They were pro-Mubarak when his National Democratic Party was in charge. It supported revolutionary sentiments after Jan. 25, and during Mursi’s reign was pro-Brotherhood.”

Darwish said the newspaper is currently “balanced,” but still represents the views of those in charge.

“Al-Ahram isn’t overly staunch against the Brotherhood, reflecting the current government’s desire to incorporate more Islamists’ views,” the professor said.

“Whether we like it or not, Brotherhood members are part of Egyptian society, and the government has tried hard to include them, but no avail,” he added.

Al-Ahram’s persistent representation of those in charge has allowed independent newspapers to play a bigger role, experts say.

“A number of newspapers have found an important place” in the new Egypt, Darwish said. “Al-Ahram without doubt has retreated.”

Ameen Mohammed Ameen, a former deputy editor at the newspaper, said he does not believe that it suffers from a lack of credibility.

“It’s the credibility of officials being interviewed that’s in doubt,” he said. An official “issues a statement, but when he finds himself responsible he denies it. The newspaper has no interest in issuing lies. The problem is with the source.”

However, Hamadi al-Asyooti, a Cairo-based lawyer and political activist, told Al Arabiya News that Al-Ahram “has to be neutral in order for us to read it again. It has to be independent.”

Asyooti said there has not been a positive change in the newspaper post-Mursi.

Solutions and prospects

Darwish said in order for the state-funded newspaper to be more independent and gain credibility, it needs to find its own independent income.

“It shouldn’t be owned by the government. There needs to be some joint-stock companies of which employees are a part,” he said.

“If it funds itself, it can largely sustain its independence, and therefore can do its job professionally without government interference.”

Ameen said one of the ways to improve Al-Ahram is “to have more contributing companies, to increase capital and to improve its administration.”

With a high illiteracy rate in Egypt, the newspaper should diversify to offer news via TV and radio, rather than just print, he added.

Sayed said: “It has become one of the backward newspapers. Its journalists still write with pens. There are no computers for them to type their articles.” Al-Ahram “needs a whole new leadership.”

Asaad Haykal, a Cairo-based lawyer and activist, said: “Al-Ahram, like other institutions in the country, is struggling between the past, the present and the future. We hope that the revolution and future will win. We want a nationalist newspaper that represents all Egyptians.”

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