Authoritarianism makes for bad journalism — often, very bad journalism. The truism is self-evident and more than amply demonstrated by lived experience, not only in Egypt but everywhere in the world.
Yet, the experience of Al-Ahram Weekly, which this week marks the 25th anniversary of its launch, demonstrates something else, which is that good journalism is often able to withstand the devastating effects of an authoritarian environment and, indeed, push back against it.
Having been asked by my friend and colleague, Galal Nassar, the Weekly’s chief editor, to contribute a little something towards this occasion, I thought of reflecting on this latter not so self-evident but no less true side of the story of both the Weekly and Egyptian journalism as a whole.
Journalism is often described as the fourth estate, which is something of a paradox in view of the great numbers of killed, tortured and jailed journalists around the world. Yet, there is no doubting that journalism is not only a power to be reckoned with, but that it also has the potential of being a pathway to power — and wealth.
This is especially true in our country. The seductive force of power, even of merely rubbing shoulders with power, has been a source of personal fascination for many years, what with sheer chance having made me a fairly close observer during a good part of my professional life.
Former president Hosni Mubarak was not known for his keen intelligence, culture or knowledge. He was also something of a vulgarian, who reportedly resorted to the crudest profanities in addressing his inner circle, both endearingly and abusively. Yet, I’ve always been amazed to see professional colleagues, some of whom were considerably more intelligent and better educated than the ex-president, become nearly orgasmic in their praise of his great intelligence and formidable wit after a single face-to-face encounter.
Being invited on the presidential plane on any one of Mubarak’s foreign visits seems to have been especially damaging to journalistic brain cells, transforming otherwise fairly clever people into blithering idiots.
I have had occasion to see the effects of this most discrete but nearly irresistible charm of rulers, their offspring and their no less powerful, foolish and heartless aides on ambitious colleagues, repeated over and over again. And it pays to be so seduced. I’ve lived long enough to have seen the humble beginnings of many professional colleagues magically transformed into enormous wealth and influence.
Paradoxically, power and influence were to be conjoined with great wealth during the period of “liberalisation” of the Egyptian media. Now the power of the state was to be closely linked to the voluminous purse strings of the oligarchs in bed with it.
Herein lies one of the salient secrets of the Weekly; for whatever reason, whether ethical, professional, political or merely one of having a sense of humour sufficient to see the real clowns underneath the enthralling mantles of power, its founding leadership headed by the late Hosny Guindy was simply not interested in journalism as a spring board.
For the crop of very young, more often than not straight out of school journalists who would come on board to make the Weekly what it is, the business of journalism was truth not power, or as one of Weekly’s greatest contributors, Edward Said, often put it: speaking truth to power.