Egypt’s English-language news websites break barriers

Sunday 22/05/2016
Youth surf social media websites inside an internet café in Cairo, on January 24, 2016.

London - At a time Egyptian jour­nalists and media out­lets are under more pressure than ever, one type of news outlet is witnessing an unlikely, but not un­expected, leap forward.
There are more English-language media outlets reporting Egyptian news than ever including a particu­lar rise in online news. This can be seen as part of a new spirit of post- “Arab spring” activism that ex­ists in something of a bubble from Arabic-language news and largely government-controlled editorial policies.
There is a host of English-lan­guage websites from Ahram On­line and Al-Ahram Weekly — sister publications of Egypt’s well-known state-owned Al-Ahram newspa­per — to independent incarnations such as the opposition Mada Masr, which was formed by the team be­hind the much-lamented Egypt In­dependent. It was forcibly closed in 2013.
There are new incarnations such as Egyptian Streets, which has boldly dealt with issues, includ­ing the murder of Italian student Giulio Regini, in ways that more established outlets have not dared. There is also Cairo Scene, which caters almost exclusively to Cairo’s hipster set; one recent article was headlined 7 Things College Dropouts are Tired of Hearing.
Egyptian Streets was launched in March 2014 by Mohamed Khairat, who stressed the importance of community and engaging with readers, something he said more traditional media fail to do in Egypt.
“Unlike other news outlets, Egyp­tian Streets is built completely by its community,” Khairat said. “We strive to foster far deeper engage­ment with the community than other media organisations in Egypt. This means that 99.9% of our posts have comments, normally with dis­cussions about the story at hand.
“English news outlets have found new ways to engage and communicate information. Arabic media continue to be bloated and extremely traditional, meaning people are looking to newer ways to receive information,” he said. Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets play a significant part of this, with readers retweeting and sharing links.
It is Egypt’s young people — more than half of Egypt’s population of 90 million people are under the age of 30 — who are flocking to English-language websites. Blessed with a good understanding of English, they crave not just community but also a view of the country and what is happening that transcends the narrow and narcissistic bent of many Egyptian media outlets.
“English-language news web­sites are important because many of the educated, new-generation Egyptians largely consume infor­mation in English. From movies and television shows to books and video games, English has become an important language, even in a country like Egypt,” Khairat said.
“Finally, there are more than 8 million Egyptians living abroad, many of whom do not know Arabic. So, being able to keep up with news and stories from their home coun­tries is something extremely im­portant. There are also many other non-Egyptians, both in Egypt and abroad, who love Egypt and want to know more.”
Egypt’s English media outlets have managed to sidestep much of the controversy that has swirled around the government and its dealings with the media, not least the recent police raid of the Press Syndicate, which sparked an acri­monious stand-off between Egyp­tian journalists and police. In 2015, the Committee to Protect Journal­ists described Egypt as second only to China as the world’s most fre­quent jailer of journalists.
Just as Egyptian media, in gen­eral, appear to be behind the times in terms of online distribution and digital content, so, too, are those monitoring the media. There are many cases of Egyptian police ar­resting journalists affiliated with domestic or international media outlets but relatively few involv­ing journalists or editors working for exclusively online publications, despite the sector’s recent growth.
For Khairat, it is a question of re­porting the news without bias, po­litical or otherwise, and not being afraid to step over an arbitrary line in the sand.
“The mistrust and press free­dom issue in Egypt has as much to do with the government as it does with those running the news organ­isations. Media in Egypt have lost their stature and are intellectually bankrupt. They no longer fulfil the role as the fourth estate and instead have become a microphone for gov­ernment, business, political and other personal interests,” he said.
“From our personal experience, we have not faced any issues from the government. The biggest prob­lem has been the people. Convinc­ing the people that you’re simply reporting the news and not taking sides or promoting any other agen­das is extremely difficult. There’s a great culture of self-censorship that continues to exist and that people impose without any govern­ment intervention at all.”