My story for Columbia Journalism Review, July 18, 2012:
CAIRO, EGYPT — Egyptian newsstands today offer a lively range of options, including three government-owned papers, papers affiliated with political parties, and several privately-owned papers, some of which sprung up since the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Since only 30 percent of Egyptians have access to the Internet, according to 2011 figures, newspapers, along with television and radio, are likely to continue playing a key role in Egyptian media for years.
Although overt government censorship was ousted along with Mubarak, Egypt’s burgeoning independent press is facing a new and more complex set of challenges. A lack of government transparency coupled with questions about the political and business interests controlling privately owned newspapers are adding to public skepticism of the mainstream press at the precise moment journalists are needed to cover the country’s difficult, delicate transition from military to civilian rule.
“We are moving from state ownership to oligarch ownership,” Hisham Kassem, a veteran of the independent press here, said in an interview in his apartment steps from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. “In Egypt, the newspaper is owned by an individual who has nothing to do with the profession, but is there for the influence.”
Kassem, who in the 1990s founded the independent but now-defunct Cairo Times and later published the pioneering independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, is in the midst of launching a new cross-platform media company called Algomhouria Algadida (which translates as “The New Republic,” though it has no relation to the Washington, DC-based magazine, he said).
However, Kassem’s project remains, for the moment, in a holding pattern while he waits for jumpy investors to feel assured that the political situation in Egypt has stabilized. He recently had cable laid in an empty newsroom that he hopes will, by the end of the year, produce high-quality content for a newspaper, website, television station, and radio station.
Kassem says he plans to establish total editorial independence by insuring that no one investor will control more than 10 percent of the company.
This business model is an attempt to confront an existing problem of so-called “anchor investors,” usually business figures, often with connections to the old regime, who own controlling stakes in key news organizations. According to a recent report produced for the Ford Foundation, these investors treat the mainstream media “as pseudo-empires, fundamentally influencing public opinion.”