By Rana Moussaoui / AFP
CAIRO: Journalists from Egypt’s state media, until last week the staid propaganda arm of a hated regime, are battling to overcome conservative management and win back the trust of their public.
As the nation’s youth, mobilized by Facebook and Twitter, rose to topple former strongman Hosni Mubarak, reporters at state television’s Nile News and the Al-Ahram newspaper were caught on the wrong side of history.
“When the demonstrations broke out, we were following the news on the BBC and Al-Jazeera,” said Suha Al-Naqash, a 41-year-old Nile News anchor.
“They forced us to say ‘Calm has returned to the streets of Cairo’, when the country was boiling over. It was very painful for me. We, who were supposed to be the main source of news, were saying nothing was happening.”
Naqash walked out, and is now refusing to return to work until the state news channel is reformed to reflect the explosion of free speech and open national debate that flared at the protests and on the web.
Others have also stepped down, and her colleagues who remained at work belatedly began to change their output in the final hours of the regime, once it became clear that the army was not going to suppress the revolt.
Suddenly photographs and footage of the “patriotic youth” appeared, along with reports on the reforms that were planned to appease the street.
But for most viewers and readers, it was all too little too late. The state media had lost their trust, and as the protests reached their climax thousands marched on state television headquarters chanting: “Liars!”
Now that the formerly unthinkable has happened – Mubarak vanished from the scene and army generals sitting to discuss constitutional reform with rebellious cyber activists – the journalists want to reform themselves.
On Sunday, dozens of employees of the reliably pro-regime Al-Gomhuria newspaper protested outside their headquarters to demand that the editors and managers, put in place under the old system, be replaced.
“These relics of the former regime must go, we don’t need them,” said one newsroom technician, Ezzat.
“We want the paper to write about the people, not the regime.”
Reporters in the crowd told stories of editors-in-chief being fired if a day went by without a photograph of Mubarak on the front page.
And Naqash, recalling her days at Nile News, said: “The people who script the evening bulletin never consulted the presenters. We weren’t allowed to speak out. We couldn’t oppose any editorial line.”
As anger against the regime was mounting over recent years, television news avoided reports on poverty and unemployment and instead focused on acts of charity by Mubarak and his cronies to “the great people of Egypt.”
The personality cult is now history, but the media executives who promoted it are still in place, attempting to perform a 180-degree turn in coverage and lavish their devotion on a new generation of leaders.
“Mubarak has gone, but the bosses are still there, the bosses who are used to the idea that the press just takes orders,” Naqash said.
But the problem in the hierarchy is not just one of cowardice and low editorial standards. As with other pillars of the system, the state media is riddled with cronyism and corruption.
New directors are parachuted into the newspapers and networks on a whim of the authorities, accept salaries of up to LE 50,000 a month ($8,300) – small fortune in Egypt – and preside over murky budgets.
“The decisions came from the top, and so did most of the editorial directors, most of them from (Mubarak’s) National Democratic Party,” Naqash said.
At Al-Gomhuria, the staff has drawn up what they term a “list of the corrupt” whom they would like to see sacked, including some senior executives.
“They’re thieves! We get LE 10 ($1.60) a day while they get astronomic sums. Enough!” said print worker Ahmed Aassi.
For Naqash, the best solution would be for the Radio and Television Union – which oversees all state broadcasting – to become a public but autonomous organization, like Britain’s respected BBC.
“It’s a new era. We must reform everything,” she said.