This report was written by the EJN’s Director, Aidan White, in 2011.
These are exciting times for journalists in Egypt. Independent journalism and media-savvy citizens armed with the latest digital tools can play a key role in driving forward the popular movement for political and democratic reform.
But this will not happen automatically.
Media will only contribute to the transformation of Egypt if they deliver journalism that is fact-based, free of political bias and gives voice to all groups in society.
This short guidebook aims to help people in Egyptian media to strengthen quality through ethical journalism, good governance and self-regulation.
It starts from the belief that media and journalists, including citizen media, need to be professional in their work and loyal to the people they serve.
To achieve high standards editors and media owners must shake off decades of political influence and break free from institutional and legal controls which have often stifled pluralist and independent journalism in Egypt.
There is cause for optimism. The media boom after the revolution pointed towards an era of liberal press and more objective editorial content. It has been suggested that today there are about 50 television channels, of which around 20 are new, and about 40 newspapers, with a handful launching since the revolution.
But partisan and government-owned media still dominate. Many newspapers, television and radio channels remain either government-owned or they represent an opposition political party.
The Egyptian constitution, which is currently under review, guarantees free expression, but the law allows government and censorship underpins the power of state-run media.
The penal code, in particular, contains many criminal restrictions on media content and there are specific laws covering the Syndicate of Journalists, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union and the Supreme Press Council all of which currently reinforce governmental influence and encourage self-censorship by journalists and editors.
At the same time, there is no independent regulatory body to monitor, regulate and question any medium, with the government as the ultimate authority. Not surprisingly, there are strong calls for better press regulation and more media transparency, including over ownership.
In that process it will be vital to create an enabling environment for media freedom and a legal framework to encourage journalists and media to set up forms of self-regulation.
This guidebook is an introduction to some of the principles and ideas behind self-regulation. It arises from a discussion in Cairo in April 2011 when media leaders and journalists, meeting under the auspices of UNESCO and the Syndicate of Journalists, launched a debate on building a new framework for ethical journalism in media.
The guide is in three parts. It begins with a broad outline and practical explanation of the principles of ethical journalism and self-regulation. In the second part it draws upon experience in other countries to outline the options for setting up an independent authority for media self-regulation based upon partnership between journalism, the media and the public. Finally, it sets out a checklist for practical actions to support self-regulation and a summary of recommendations for initial work.
The starting point is the belief that a culture of self-regulation will create a confident community of ethical journalists, improve levels of transparency and accountability, and build public trust in media.
This debate is up and running. A growing movement of Egyptian journalists and media professionals is already discussing how to steer media towards a renaissance of values and standards that will build public confidence.
But this will not be easy. People know that journalism has a history in the shadows of politics and forms of state control. They want media they can trust and not journalism that is an instrument controlled by invisible hands, whether from the world of politics, public relations or business.
When journalism acts unethically media can cause of confusion, ignorance, uncertainty and fear. Even worse, journalism can become a weapon for division and hatred in the community, particularly when it is manipulated by unscrupulous politicians who encourage sectarianism, sensationalism and propaganda.
Egyptian journalists need to tell their stories with integrity and style; communicating essential facts and always balancing the need for humanity but to do that there must be an end to media serving narrow political interests.
At the same time people everywhere are concerned by the growth of a culture of live and breaking news and the expansion of more yellow, tabloid or junk journalism.
Information travels at breakneck speed. In an instant reputations can be destroyed, falsehoods spread and privacy invaded. Often journalism seems to be driven by sensationalism, violence and conflict while less dramatic, but important stories about politics, health, education and community slip down the news agenda.
In this context the need for ethical journalism, good governance and media self-regulation poses an enormous and urgent challenge for journalists, editors and owners.
This guidebook is a response to that need.