A year of going up the stairs of Egypt’s obscure rooms of power
A review of Mada Masr’s news and politics coverage
 
 
 
Politics practice review session
 

The year is closing with some suspense: What will become of the 2018 presidential elections? While we don’t have news yet of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s own plans in that regard, we know what plans he has for his potential adversaries.

We also know how the circle of power has further tightened around Sisi after the sacking of his former chief of staff, and we saw signs of further securitization — specifically General Intelligence Service control over different apparatuses, including the media and the Foreign Ministry. This coincided with another episode of in-fighting between judges and the president in light of the judicial authorities law, which grants the president more powers over the judiciary. Al-Azhar’s clerics also had their share of feuding with Sisi.

Parliament was busy passing legislation that was mostly to the president’s liking, such as the NGO law and the emergency law.

But a more powerful presidency did not translate into a better year in terms of counter-terrorism. Multiple attacks, claimed by large and small-scale militant groups in Sinai, the Western Desert and the mainland, targeting soldiers, officers and Christians, marked the year.

It was also a year of complex international relations and foreign policy, reactivated on the front of neighboring countries and witnessing ebbs and flows with countries we share strategic relations with.

On the ground, syndicates were broken, political parties imploded, and students voted in insignificant union elections, while political dissidents re-entered prison if they weren’t already there; football fans, LGBTQ people and their sympathizers were arrested; low-income neighborhood residents were threatened; and  websites were blocked — including yours truly — as infinite eyes have been watching us closely.

And of course, former President Hosni Mubarak is free.

The above is not to illustrate a gloomy picture of Egypt’s political state of affairs. It is rather a way to say we have been quite busy, but we can do better.

Mada’s coverage throughout the year shows a less comprehensive map of these different developments and the relations that tie them together. We held a conversation earlier this month to review our work, and invited two external readers: political researcher and analyst Amr Abdel Rahman, and journalist Dina Ezzat. The review centered on our focus on higher politics to the detriment of more grassroots politics, the lack of field work and on-the-ground reporting, the absence of lateral titles outside the scope of the expected coverage and, of course, the state of compelling writing.

A first general comment coming from Abdel Rahman was that we seem to be a lot more concerned with questions of higher politics.

The editorial direction is not clear to me in terms of what you are trying to cover on the political front. What’s different about Mada’s coverage, besides the fact that you do your work well? This sub-head of progressive media is not clear to me as a reader. The focus is on high politics, which is how politics is defined in other media. But if I am a progressive media, I will have to go downward, and I am the one who will do the story. I won’t wait for the news. Why didn’t you wonder how local politics is practiced in the absence of municipal elections since 2011? Why didn’t we interrogate the intensification of corruption charges against bureaucrats recently?

A second, related observation pertains to the absence of field work and on-the-ground reporting in our work. Abdel Rahman, alongside editors Hossam Bahgat and this author, had thoughts to share on that point.

Abdel Rahman: For example, the civil service law was just passed. So, you got the law, gave it a quality explanation, called an expert and got their thoughts on it. That’s it? I’d want, six months after the passing of the law, to do a story about a civil servant, trying to understand how his life has changed after the law.

Bahgat: The lack of field reporting is not tied to the fact that we are a small team. It’s simply tied to the fact that we don’t go down to the field. There are news teams around us who are smaller than us and who understand the significance of a moment outside of the office. We knew that [would-be presidential candidate] Ahmed Shafiq was coming from the United Arab Emirates and that his family was waiting for him at 8 pm. We knew that at 4 pm, so it was enough time to do something. AFP sent someone to the airport, saw him come out and published an exclusive. We knew that protests [against United States President Donald Trump’s decision to take his embassy to Jerusalem] were coming out of Al-Azhar, but no one went to perform the Friday prayers there. Our court attendance has been a disaster. How many terror-related cases did we attend in court?

Attalah: We need to be conscious that there is a distance from the act of witnessing and immersion in the contexts that produce news, phenomena and the overall reality surrounding us. This is the essence of journalism and this is the energy we are missing. Of course people are concerned with the state of security, especially as there is a lot of skepticism around journalists, and that affects working outside the office, but this is not the only reason for the lack of field reporting. The truth is we have normalized this distance.

 

How issues get covered from a policy-making perspective all the way down to how policy is experienced, negotiated and at times resisted is one form of expansion needed. Another is a horizontal expansion that looks laterally at issues barely covered elsewhere, one that sits at the heart of politics, said Abdel Rahman.

One of the things I enjoy reading in newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian, etc… is about artificial intelligence, related technologies and medical research. This is tied to monopolies and major political questions about the future in terms of production, labor and governance. I do not find these questions raised [in Mada’s coverage], while the more traditional political issues are.

For Haitham Gabr, from our copy-editing team, the absence of field work was tied to lack of specialization.

Journalists working on beats are not properly immersed in them. Journalists with beats should become references for them. They should also have plans for how they want to cover their beats for the entire year. Having beats is the key to expanding our coverage horizontally and vertically.

Meanwhile, the expansion in higher politics coverage meant access to sources within the echelons of power, the kind of sources who would only speak to us on condition of anonymity. But what checks and balances do we need to preserve when citing anonymous sources? Bahgat and journalist Omar Said addressed this question.

Said: In the story about [the dismissal of the Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff Mahmoud] Hegazy, our main sources were anonymous. This is a story that goes right inside the apparatus of the state, in a way that no other media does. This story gave an impression to our readers that we are telling a story that is not quite tight. That makes me raise the question: What are our principles and standards when it comes to anonymous sources? Will they give us opinions or facts?

Bahgat: It is time to write something about our policy vis-à-vis anonymous sources. When a story, like the one on the Foreign Ministry, is informational, our readers tolerate the anonymity of sources. But when it is analytical, we are not tolerated.

 

A final note was about writing. How can we write better? How can we write less mechanically? Is that even possible when doing news reporting? The answer can be yes, as per Shady Zalat, our news editor.

I didn’t see many attempts to develop writing and narrative style, except for a couple of long features. Of course with the pace of news, it is hard to innovate in the writing process. Part of the issue is how liberated the copy editors are from traditional styles that they impose on journalists. But journalists can also force copy editors to preserve their voice if they really develop a style of writing they can defend.

 

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