From North to South: A Journey Through the Turbulent Future of Journalism
In Marsa Matrouh, on the northwestern coast of Egypt, signs of tribalism and adherence to an ultra conservative Islam can't be missed. Bedouin garb worn by many residents remind visitors like me that this famous summer destination belongs to people Cairenes don't easily identify.
The view of Egyptians coming from the Nile Valley as outsiders is the backdrop to many conflicts. A walk through the two main streets, away from the relatively deserted Corniche awaiting its summer visitors, demonstrate what some have discreetly complained to me about the rise of Salafism, specifically the brand prone to confrontations and force.
One mobile shop proudly puts Osama Bin Laden's face on its gleaming window, along with the logos of the two main Islamic parties: The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice and the Salafi al-Nour.
What I learned of this border province in a two-day visit barely scratches the surface. Its history holds more intricate stories than the usual headlines of Islamists dominating the elections. These stories are better told by the residents, rather than outsiders like me.
Decades of centralization in governance left a damning imprint on journalism. Although local correspondents send the news, the capital dictates the agenda and usually scraps province-specific topics as unimportant. It feeds into a cycle of marginalization.
A project like Yomaty, a live blog authored by the citizen journalists in Egypt's provinces, would be a step towards bridging that gap. The project, which I joined as a trainer, is part of Welad ElBalad, a company that works to build and support local journalism.
Its other project, Sahafet Welad ElBalad, supports seven local weeklies in towns in the Delta, Upper Egypt, and Matrouh. It's providing journalists (professional and aspiring) with the know-how and tools to tell their own stories.
In Matrouh and Qena, an hour drive from Luxor in southern Egypt, I met with groups of enthusiastic journalists, eager to expose unique stories and to learn the tools that would enable them to dig up the information they seek. I met professionals in fields like education and agriculture intent on informing the community about their respective fields with precious insight. We discussed dangerous building violations, police incompetence, school children battling the elements to reach a destroyed school. All are stories that only a local would find and have an immediate interest in telling with passion and concern.
Traveling with the Yomaty team and teaching the basics of journalism in Matrouh and Qena was a source of overwhelming positive energy. Frustration with the political scene was immediately replaced with a belief that the future is better in the hands of people determined to shape their own destinies with a flow of information.
Back in Cairo, a sad journalism story was waiting, a blow to the notion of empowering local journalists. The Egypt Independent, an English-language weekly, had closed down, with the management citing financial burdens. The closure can't be taken out of the political context and the paper's staff (some of who are already going through their second such closure in a year) doesn't exclude it as a factor.
After a hectic and relatively successful two months of trying to revamp the defunct business structure and boost revenue, they were notified of the closure and their last issue wasn't allowed to print on April 25. It's a stellar issue exploring the state of media with insight and the paper's signature inquisitive and humorous tone.
I wrote before about the importance of having Egypt's story told to the world by its own people – not just as journalists, but with Egyptian editors and Egyptian management.
The closure of EI leaves Daily News Egypt, which has already closed down a year ago for similar reasons, and Ahram Online, a state-run venture that has surprisingly maintained independence.
Unless a miracle happens and a team of now-unemployed journalists re-launch a new venture with a sustainable business model, the future of English-language journalism looks bleak here.
Lina Attalah, EI's editor, left on an upbeat note. “We leave you with the hope of coming back soon, stronger and unbeaten, ready to incessantly travel to uncharted territories of storytelling,” she wrote. This faith and the sanguinity of the Yomaty students I met make this possible.
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