Al-Ahram has been an institution in Egypt for 136 years, but under Mubarek, the state run newspaper became notorious for disinformation in service of the regime. Brooke talks with Al-Ahram's staff about how to re-establish credibility in post-revolutionary Egypt. Plus, blogger and activist Mona Seif tells Brooke about the new media taboo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone in Cairo. We slipped past the guards at Cairo University to check out an ongoing sit-in at the School of Mass Communication, now in full swing, with placards and banners and a fair measure of flirting. The students' demand? Dean Samy Abdel Aziz, a revolution-denying rigged election-defending Mubarak's cronies must go.
[MAN SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
MALE INTERPRETER: The principles of press or the principles of media, in general, that we learn, are in complete contradiction with the opinions of the dean. We are taught to have credibility, not to mislead public opinion, and to observe neutrality in presenting issues. And the dean defends ferociously and with all his power a regime that corrupted and destroyed the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A fight breaks out when some young men are ejected after trying to crash the sit-in. Actually, no one is sitting. These are stressful times, many revolutions everywhere as the institutions built to support the old regime are breached. Students here learn solid principles of journalism, but to use them they've been obliged to go abroad, to Al-Jazeera or the BBC. And that might seem strange, given that the most storied newspaper in the region, a 136-year-old monument to journalism, is so nearby. We hail a cab.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Al-Ahram is Egypt's most widely circulated daily newspaper, though not necessarily the most read. State-owned, the government appoints the top editors and controls the presses. Riddled with deadwood and internal corruption, the paper's nadir probably was reached in September 2010 when a blogger revealed that it had doctored a photo of Middle East leaders walking with President Obama so that Mubarak appeared to be leading the group, instead of Obama when, in fact, the Egyptian leader was bringing up the rear. Osama Saraya, Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief, called the altered photo "expressionist," depicting Mubarak's leadership role in the peace process. We've arrived and run into Khaled Dawood. Back after nine years as an American correspondent, he's returning, he says, like many other foreign-based Egyptian journalists, to help build democracy at home. So why all those years in the U.S.? It was a strategy to avoid conflict. For instance, he says, he didn't have to report, as home-based reporters did, on mythical Mubarak supporters in the street during the revolution. Away from the mother ship, you're less likely to confront moral dilemmas.
KHALED DAOUD: You simply use your own tactics, like many Egyptian journalists, of avoiding the stories that will put you in a bad position or make your name look bad. And if worse comes to worse, you — they force you to write one story, you can file it without having your byline on it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you feel when you saw that infamous photograph of Mubarak walking in front of the National Delegation, rather than behind?
KHALED DAOUD: I was embarrassed to be an Egyptian journalist when I saw that picture. And, of course, I wasn't happy because everybody was making fun of me. But more important, I just told myself that if a government newspaper wants to satisfy the president in such a cheap way, this is definitely a regime that's not going to stay for long.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's your beat here?
KHALED DAOUD: I cover regional affairs, and I also cover the local political scene.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's going to happen the first time you push against the red line?
KHALED DAOUD: My article won't get published.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Upstairs, we are greeting by Al-Ahram's new editor-in-chief, replacing the old expressionist one, Abdel Azim Hamad, a longtime Al-Ahram hand, who briefly left for an independent paper and then returned. An unscientific poll of reporters tells us that they can't quite read him yet. I certainly couldn't. He says Ah-Ahram's comeback will be a piece of cake.
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: So Al-Ahram's is well established in the Egyptian consciousness. It is part of our culture. So it is easy for Al-Ahram to regain the confidence of the readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we've talked to people who have worked at Al-Ahram, people who have read Al-Ahram, and the fact is it's not going to be easy. So be honest with me. What's the big challenge? What is the first thing that you need to do?
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: I think it is enough now to replace the chief editor. He was responsible for everything gone wrong in Al-Ahram. Of course, the change of the regime liberated all of my colleagues, just — it is a week now. Just it is a week now! Just — one week! So it is — it is hard to answer every question —
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understand —
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: — to know everything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, what is your goal for this week, if you have one? And what would be your main goal for next week?
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: My main goal for this week is to change the people of the central desk, along with the newsroom. The desk who is in charge of all the pages of the newspaper and should be headed by the chief editor himself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So those people have to go. Is that going to happen this week?
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: Not all of them, of course.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And next week?
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: Next week, to pick up some new face to supervise the editorial section.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this week get rid of people, next week replace them. [LAUGHS]
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: I hope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the week after that?
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: Oh, it is enough! It is — a lot of questions now. I think it is enough now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ABDEL AZIM HAMAD: I'm so sorry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, thank you. He threw us out of his office. So, we picked up with enterprising business reporter Sabah Hamamu, lately suspended for investigating corruption within Al-Ahram, and then reinstated after the revolution. She sees a future for press freedom at Al-Ahram. Inshallah.
SABAH HAMAMU: This is kind of transformational period. The army should — shouldn't be in charge in a few months from now. We should have, you know, parliament election and presidential election. So the army won't be there forever. And I would love if we can have this chance to, you know, objectively report whatever happening in army or anywhere else but, to be honest, I'm not, you know, thinking this is what gonna be happening. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because of patriotism, because of a sense that it would be destabilizing, or because it would be very much discouraged by the editors, or why not?
SABAH HAMAMU: I don't — I don't think the editors will take this risk because we are owned by the government. We are not independent. So and the decision for appointing editors, right, this second is going to the sole power in the country. And my opinion, my personal opinion, they want take this risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not go to an independent paper here, rather than to the paper that was the mouthpiece of the regime?
SABAH HAMAMU: Because we want this place to bring as Tahrir people brought Egypt back to the world as, you know, to the place it deserves, as the country that every — everybody looking at, at this moment, why don't we try to bring Al-Ahram back to Egypt as, you know, the most — in my opinion, it's been the most credible and most prestigious newspaper in, in the region. It's the oldest in the newspaper and it's one of the most important ten newspaper worldwide. So why don't we give it a try and do our best? Let's do that. If we fail — if we fail, I will go to another place, or I'll quit and do anything else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: History is against her, the laws are against her. And, for now, the political establishment led by the military certainly is against her. Last Sunday a military tribunal convicted 26-year-old Michael Nabil Sanad of insulting the army by reporting military abuses on his blog. He was sentenced to three years in prison, the first trial of a blogger since the military took over in February. Young bloggers are on the frontline in the information war, and Mona Seif, a 25-year-old grad student in cancer research, is one of its field marshals, having used social media to keep thousands connected to events in Tahrir Square and now in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen. I guess you could call her a Twitter node. It was late and she'd just left the lab when we met in a cafe called Bon Appetit, just down the street from Tahrir Square. What's a nice girl like you messed up in a revolution like this?
MONA SEIF: Ah [LAUGHS], I don't know, everyone I know is involved in this revolution [LAUGHS], nice girls or — not very nice. [LAUGHS]
[BROOKE LAUGHS] So, so just to tell you what revolutions could do to you. The — this young actor, his name is As — Asser Yassin and, janni, among my generation he's one of the most handsome young actors. And when I started working on military trials of civilians, I was working for one case in particular, at the beginning, for a guy called Amr el-Behery because I was a witness to the army beating him up. So a friend of mine who worked in filmmaking told me he's going to contact his friends and do like a small film to say that they are against military trials of civilians. And so, he contacted Asser and they did the video, and it was really good. And my friend called me and he's like, okay, one of the channels of State TV called Asser Yasine and they want to have an interview with him about Amr el-Behery's case. And since he doesn't know much about it, he has to sit with you [LAUGHS] to get more info about it. And I started laughing [LAUGHS], and I was like, yes, the revolution got me everything I want.
[BROOKE LAUGHING] Mubarak out and Asser Yasine calling me on the phone! [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you remember the first thing you ever posted online?
MONA SEIF: [LAUGHS] Back in 2006, it was a very personal post about how I've been following the blogs and how suddenly I want to be part of this space and see what it does to me, and like sort of explore it. Only a month after I started blogging we had a big incident of mass sexual harassments for girls in downtown, and most of the girls I knew who had blogs, we suddenly decided very spontaneously to use our blogs as a space to share this experience, to share how it was being a girl in Egypt and how you sort of go through sexual harassment experiences every day. And suddenly there was this whole campaign against sexual harassment. Girls who usually wouldn't have dared to write about this suddenly gained support by the idea that others are doing the same. And it was the first time for me to be part of the social campaign that uses online tools and that comes out to one particular instant that triggers it and makes it much bigger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you have any contact with mainstream media, or were you just working along a parallel path?
MONA SEIF: Mainstream media had contacts with us. They used to seek us out. And even this happened in Tahrir. We didn't need effort on our part to try and reach out for mainstream media. Once you got the word out on the alternative media and social networks, either mainstream media picks it up and follows you to get update, or even if mainstream media were reluctant to do that, eventually the buzz in the blogsphere and in the social media pressures them to talk about it. When we had the referendum, it was a vicious battle online. So in that sense, social media is really being used, and really being used much more than anything else, because we don't have real spaces in which these kind of debates usually take place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is your focus now?
MONA SEIF: Military trials of civilians. Since the army has taken control, we have thousands of civilians who have been tried before military court. The trial itself does not guarantee justice. And our mainstream media will not approach the subject. We have a couple of cases that the army have declared they are going to review it and retry them again, after they were sentenced. All this has been done using social media. Social media will always be the first channel we use to approach subjects that mainstream media or the regime is reluctant to. And it seems that people in power are understanding this. For example, the army's main method of communication with the people is through Facebook. They have an official Facebook page. When they want to declare a statement, it is first announced on Facebook, not in, in main state media, not in newspapers. First thing they announce it is a statement on Facebook. So even those in power understand that now the way to the people is through social media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where do you get most of your news?
MONA SEIF: My main news source is Twitter now, whatever the issue is. And by time you acquire a list of people that you know who really credible, and so you trust what news they are sending your way, which is like you do with mainstream media. And even when the revolution started in Libya, I sent out to the people I trust on Twitter, asking for sources in Libya. And eventually, I learned and I gathered my own group of tweets from Libya to follow their news. The same thing happened for Bahrain and everything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’ve created your own list of essentially news aggregators, because a lot of them will send you links to mainstream journalism? It isn't just all citizen journalists, right?
MONA SEIF: It isn't, it isn't at all. It's pointers. It gives you an indication of what is in the list of hot topics. It gives you an indication of which are the best things to read. It sort of works as a filter and an aggregator at the same time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any Egyptian media right now that you trust?
MONA SEIF: Some and some. In the past two months, as I've been completely absorbed in the issue of military trials and military violations, it made me realize more and more it takes a lot of guts to approach this subject. And I see this with a lot of people on, online, but I didn't see it with a lot of the independent newspapers. It made me sort of review my assessment of each paper I've been following or reading.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How they deal with the military is kind of a litmus test for you?
MONA SEIF: Yes, absolutely. How much they are willing to take risk for, you know, the greater good of human rights and protecting those who do not have people to protect them or not, so —
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your media consumption seems to begin and end online.
[CAR HORNS SOUNDING]
MONA SEIF: I think my generation, definitely for them their main space is the online one. But I also see that most of the people of my generation are still aware of the importance of traditional journalism and news coverage, and they are trying to move from the online form of it and invade the traditional methods. I would give you an example on that. A group of young people from Tahrir Square, right after Mubarak stepped down, they started an informal underground newspaper called El Gornal. They distributed online, but they printed. Their last issue had a huge coverage on military violation. The first issue, they printed 10,000 copies. This last issue they printed 25,000, and they are trying to push for more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
MONA SEIF: It — gives you access to a different audience. It gives you a different access, and because even for me I still like to hold something in my hand and read it. And it's not a bad thing. [LAUGHS] So it's not as if we are disposing with — you know, with one means and then moving to another. We are pushing to — change the other traditional forms to fit our expectations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you working in your field?
MONA SEIF: Yes, I am. My work in particular is on BRCA 1 gene, which is one of the genes connected with breast cancer incidence, and I'm investigating the mutation pattern in Egyptian patients.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You are working full time at that.
MONA SEIF: Yes, absolutely. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you're working full time, really, as an activist.
MONA SEIF: Eh — I guess so. [LAUGHS] Both are very consuming, time and energy and — and emotions. And I'm only starting to get the handle of doing both at the same time and juggling between my activism and my work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of people say the problem with citizen journalism, leaving aside whether it's accurate or it's well researched, is that it's not professional in the narrow definition that you aren't paid. And if you aren't paid, then you can't entirely devote yourself and that's why you need a professional journalism class of people.
MONA SEIF: Paid or not does not define you being professional. I am practically not paid in my research [LAUGHS], and yet, [LAUGHS] I'm doing it and it's my real job. For the citizen journalism, I think this is why the actual product for me seems more professional, because what pushes people to do it is not to earn their money, but because they are fully committed to this particular cause that they are working on. And for me, I started working on military trials because fate had it that I was personally involved as someone was getting beaten up by the army and then falsely accused. And so, I felt really personally about it, and I'm working really hard. I'm not sure if I was actually paid to do this job, if I would have worked as hard as I am doing now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think neutrality is important to producing good journalism?
MONA SEIF: No. [LAUGHS] Absolutely not. I hate it when people push neutrality against me when we are talking about obvious violations. Whenever I saw the term "neutrality" it was always to justify not covering the brutality of police or regimes or whoever in power.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the problem of accuracy?
MONA SEIF: I always find it's funny when people ask about that because we have printed newspapers that are complete rubbish. And they publish lies all the time. So use the same methods of judging and assessing any news source, whether they are professional journalists or citizen journalists. Nothing is given. People of my generation, because of all the —what we have experienced, they are less likely to believe anything coming out of an official, for example. And they would always check first online or with their own personal networks that they have developed to check the facts. It's not as if we've never had rumors before spread and now that we have social media there are rumors spread. It's just another space where you have to use the same mechanisms you used to use in the real world, but adapt them to this new virtual world.