Another nail in the coffin of Egypt's free press came last week as The Daily News Egypt, the country’s last independent newspaper was taken over by the management of Akhbar Al Youm, a state-owned newspaper favored by the Cairo regime.
The news sent shockwaves through journalistic circles in the Egyptian capital where the Daily News once cast a critical eye over those in power.
Situated just off the Nile, the former bustling offices of the Daily News are a quieter place these days as many journalists have quit the newspaper following a government assets freeze last year which lead to months of unpaid salaries and a revised editorial stance.
Speaking to Al Bawaba News on the condition of anonymity, one journalist described the misery of life under state management with staff from Akhbar Al Youm arriving daily to scrutinize the publication for critical articles before it is sent off for print.
“Al- Akhbar took over the management, finances, IT, and marketing and we keep hearing that they will also control things editorially. It has only been three days but they come every afternoon to check the PDF before it is sent to the printers,” they said.
“So far they haven’t interfered but some of us sense that their English language skills aren’t very good so it’s hard to know if they really understand what we write. However, it has only been a few days so it is hard to know if we have seen their true faces at this stage,” they added.
Another reason for their uncritical approach may be because many journalists at the publication are now afraid to write anything that might be seen as critical of the Cairo regime.
“I wouldn’t say that we practice self-censorship but we definitely like to stay on the safe side editorially and stick to reporting the official narrative given by the government. It sucks, to be honest. Our reporting was what made the Daily News stand out in Egypt, especially as an English media outlet,” they added.
The Daily News was once a diamond of the often rough sands of Egypt’s media landscape. A favorite read among the chattering classes in embassies around Cairo, expats across Egypt and among flyers on the national carrier, Egyptair, the Daily News strived to create independent nonpartisan journalism based on facts rather than spin.
The Daily News also provided a training ground for scores of Egyptian and foreign reporters and editors before, during and after the 2011 revolution and the 2013 ouster of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi which saw army chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi swept to power.
The newspaper had a reputation for unbiased professionalism and sticking to the facts without the partisan politics often favored by its rivals, in fact, the newspaper was so well respected that El-Sisi himself appeared on the front page in a rare English language interview in the run-up to 2014’s presidential vote.
Once elected, the president’s favor for the publication was short-lived. In the years following El-Sisi’s rise to power, the president, and his administration has become increasingly scared of any criticism from the free press. Journalists have been jailed, websites blocked editors smeared in a bid to silence any voices who dared to speak out against the regime.
Sadly, the Daily News was no exception. Following a series of critical articles last year, a state-run committee assigned to seizing funds and assets of Muslim Brotherhood affiliated members froze the assets of the newspaper’s parent company, Business News - which also owns financial publication, Al Borsa - and the firm’s owner Mostafa Sakr over alleged ties to the banned group.
The assets freeze meant that all bank accounts linked to the publication could no longer be accessed and journalists could not be paid. Destined to prove his innocence Sakr instructed journalists to write exclusively using facts released by official government channels and to avoid any articles which could be deemed as critical of the regime.
However, El-Sisi’s war against the Daily News didn’t stop there and the publication’s website was blocked alongside other independent outlets including Mada Masr and Al Jazeera in May. Publishers attempted to flout the ban by registering the website under a second domain name, but regime officials blocked the second domain within hours to show that they meant business.
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Many staff members believe that the publication has been unfairly targeted by officials.
“It’s as if we were only doing critical stuff. We did diplomatic reporting for example, which is normally pro-state. And our business sections are quite pro-free market and pro-investment. We weren't Al Jazeera. We were just publishing journalism, and reporting what is actually happening in Egypt,” the journalist said.
However, the insider says that not everybody is hostile following the regime takeover.
“Actually, the owners are glad that the government management team is in place because it means that the bank accounts are unfrozen and staff can finally be paid,” they added.
But despite the resumption of salary payments, it is already too late for staff members who’ve left in their droves in recent months.
Meanwhile, others who chose to stay on at the Daily News now face some tough decisions in the wake of the latest news.
“I don’t know when or if I will leave,” said the journalist.
“But for me the experience of the Daily News as a newspaper is dead and that is very unlikely to change anytime soon,” he added.
Despite the present circumstances, the unnamed journalist still believes that there is hope for independent media outlets in Egypt.
“It is bleak at the moment but I think there will always be hope for independent media outlets here.
“So long as they exist then their existence will be an act of resistance,” they added.
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