The forum brought together over sixty participants including media owners, bureau chiefs, academics, and young journalists representing a wide array of perspectives. Over three days, they discussed how to improve the ethics, objectivity and accountability of mainstream media, while protecting journalists from violence or wrongful arrest.
Egyptian media leaders engaged with global counterparts to learn about media in countries that transitioned to democracy from authoritarian regimes, including Argentina and Indonesia. International panelists from the United States focused on alternative media, hyper-local news sources, separating ownership influence from daily reporting, and the dangers of media consolidation. This forum developed practical ties and potential for collaboration to aid the execution of these ideas.
Some of the themes explored included:
- The historic role of the media as a mobilizer of the public. The role of the Egyptian media in the context of Egypt's ongoing transition came under debate. It was argued that the media should move away from trying to direct public opinion toward serving as purveyors of information that provide context. Many voiced their desire to see the Egyptian media serve to facilitate an informed national debate on issues of importance to Egypt's future.
- Increased risks in revolutionary times. Many participants expressed that the media sector is operating in the context of Egypt's national challenges, including intense polarization, the rising threat of terrorism both domestically and regionally, the weak institutionalization of government functions, and the shifting state of the economy and the rule of law, all of which contribute to a riskier environment for journalists.
- The crisis of ethics in a polarized climate. Discussion emphasized that the sector faces a crisis of ethics where fact-based reporting is being drowned-out by unsubstantiated accusations of extremism or incitement of violence against those of opposing views. Many believe the media should help cool down the country and focus on the fundamental challenges to national development. The need for balanced self-enforcement mechanisms for code of conduct violations, including ombudsmen, was emphasized repeatedly.
- The violence and jailing of journalists. Although certain voices in Egyptian media openly criticize the state without reprisal, many participants condemned the ongoing violence and wrongful arrest of journalists and voiced concerns over the inability to perform their jobs professionally without risk of incarceration, violence or loss of employment.
- Democracy, human rights and the economy. Some felt that Egypt’s economy requires the gradual introduction of democratic and free market practices to thrive. Egypt cannot rely on natural resources, but must look to foster innovation and value creation to grow its economy sustainably. Thus, the human rights and democracy debate is not simply a moral one, but is a practical one that the media sector should be facilitating responsibly.
- The power of pioneers. Lessons from Latin America point to the need to support media organizations who are leading the way in ethics, professionalism and accountability, suggesting it is not necessary to aim for entire sector reforms, but to support a few pioneers who can lead change from within.
- The concentration of state and private ownership. The objectivity and continued relevance of state-owned media outlets came under question. The state owns the majority of media outlets in the country, yet these outlets operate with significant losses, raising concerns over their purpose and motivation. Many voiced similar skepticism over the main privately owned media outlets, which are controlled by a select few individuals. Some participants and international examples pointed to the need to prevent concentrations of ownership in media to promote professionalism and avoid conflicts of interest.
- The decentralization of a Cairo-centric media sector. Several examples of new business models that aim to provide local media solutions were discussed. Participants debated the need for diversified sources of financing for such ventures, as well as alternative ownership structures, that could help these new organizations scale their operations and unlock an untapped market for media in Egypt.
- The relationship between mission and financing. Media outlets should consider their priorities at the outset to increase their chances of sustainability, leading to the question: Is it possible for a media outlet to responsibly facilitate national debates on issues impacting society while prioritizing profits? It was argued that once the priorities have been set, it is imperative for the business model to be compatible with these priorities.
- The relevance of legal reforms. There was debate about whether reform of laws would actually lead to change in practices, as there remain weak institutions and loose professional norms to enforce those laws. In the case of alternative forms of ownership, laws would help bring clarity to the legality of their operations and help to close certain loopholes that tend to leave alternative voices vulnerable to state intervention. Moreover, it was argued that laws set the foundation for change, but do not create change. Nonetheless, it is imperative to ensure that adequate laws that build on the values articulated in the 2014 Constitution of freedom of expression and media independence be drafted and passed.
- The bottom-up approach to reform. The bottom-up approach to advancing journalistic excellence was debated, with many supporting pioneer reform from within and suggesting the creation of new initiatives or independent bodies that recognize and reward professionalism. These civil society organizations would foster a culture of excellence through journalism awards programs or even the certification of organizations that abide by a code of ethics, train their journalists, and hold them accountable for unethical conduct.
- The value of data. Participants were concerned that Egyptian media do not adequately utilize data in its reporting. Participants debated how data collection and analysis could shed light into public perceptions that can be used to either aid in the reconciliation or polarization of society. Many acknowledged the value of such information and the need for further analysis across Egypt's governorates to uncover a more complete picture of Egyptian society. In turn, media organizations must develop their capacity to utilize such information responsibly.
This diverse group of leaders in Egyptian media alongside international counterparts engaged in a uniquely open and candid discussion on issues impacting Egyptian media and opportunities in the current climate. Further work is needed to ensure a continuation of dialogue as leaders work to build consensus on the vision for Egypt's media sector, as well as practical steps that can be taken collectively and individually to advance the sector toward excellence.
Click on the following link to access the full report published jointly with Arab Media & Society: Striving for Excellence in Egyptian Media: Findings from the Egypt Media Forum. The ideas presented provide a blueprint for how decision makers can move Egypt's media sector forward.