Egypt has done a remarkable thing. On 25 January, its people rose up and ousted an ageing dictator. Egypt is now emgaged in democratic elections. One cannot help but look on in wonder and hope for the country’s future.
Of course the challenges are legion. This is as true for Egyptian media as it is for civil society. If the Egyptian media is to be genuinely free to play its democratic part in Egyptian society then it will have to overcome formidable hurdles. I do not write this as someone who knows Egypt - I don’t - but rather as a longtime observer of the development of media in other countries, as well as my own.
Foremost amongst these challenges is achieving proper legal protection for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In the Press Freedom Index 2010, compiled by Reporters without Borders, Egypt came 127th out of 178 countries - below the Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe. The closure of the Ministry of Information was a step in the right direction but simply removes active government intervention without introducing press protection. [Editor's Note: The Ministry of Information was reinstated in July 2011]. Only when there is adequate legal protection and recognition of the value of independent journalism will individuals and institutions be able to write and publish freely.
The government and other authorities will then have to respect this freedom. This includes taking apart the mechanisms developed by the Mubarak regime to monitor and police publishers (both individual and institutional). There have been worrying signs that, even in the post-Mubarak Egypt, the authorities are too willing to censor the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported in April on a "new requirement by the Egyptian military that local print media obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication." This just before the arrest and imprisonment of a blogger, Maikel Nabil Sanad, for three years for "insulting the military" (from CPJ).
The public will also need to embrace this freedom and protest when it is infringed. Having lived through decades of controlled media, spiky public discussions about politics will feel uncomfortable to some people. As we saw after the end of the Cold War in the ex-Soviet republics, there is a natural conservatism borne of many years of not being able to talk about political issues or question government policy. As a consequence many sections of the public may not have much sympathy for vocal critics of the government and may not feel inclined to protest when they are threatened, arrested or imprisoned. It is easy not to like a press that is causing waves, creating problems, making politics messy. But such a press is exactly what a democracy needs if it is to be healthy, as Michael Schudson so eloquently argued in his book Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press.
At the same time publishers need to write down their own publishing principles. What values do they aspire to? What commitment are they going to make to their readers, listeners or viewers? Writing these principles down gives the public - and journalists - an indication of the standards to which the organisation will aim. Al Jazeera commits to giving people "Opinion... and the other Opinion" and has a clear and transparent ten point code of ethics. The Associated Press embeds a link to its principles within each of its articles online. These principles are not only for the public but give a news organisation and its journalists strength when challenged.
Only when there is adequate legal protection and recognition of the value of independent journalism will individuals and institutions be able to write and publish freelyNone of these hurdles are easy to surmount, and made more complex by the legacy of state sponsored media in Egypt. Publishers and the public will need to evolve an Egyptian sense of news purpose that suits Egyptian culture and history. There is no point adopting a purely western model.
These challenges are made more complex still given the technological revolution through which the news media is going right now which is causing havoc with traditional media institutions in western democracies.
But this media revolution - especially the social media revolution - also presents an opportunity. An opportunity the Egyptian people already took advantage of in January and February of last year. Facebook’s role in the revolution may have been overstated, but it is clear that social media was crucial in enabling people to communicate, to organise and to nurture opposition to the Mubarak regime.
Social media helped bring people together and threaded masses of ordinary people into Egypt’s media ecology. This link between the people and Egyptian media is central to the future of media freedom. If the links between the two, the sense of empowerment that comes from participating online and being heard, and the sense of freedom from saying what you want to say can all be sustained, then Egyptian media can realise its freedom. I, for one, sincerely hope it can. Good luck to Midan Masr.