Al-Ahram Weekly’s 30th anniversary: Why do we need to tell our story?

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 4 Mar 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly’s 30th anniversary comes at an important time for Egypt and the region and during a period of disruption in the newspaper industry, but the paper remains faithful to its goals

Naguib Mahfouz

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Al-Ahram Weekly, which was established amidst Desert Storm, the US-led war to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, one of the most momentous events in the 20th-century Middle East. The paper aimed at providing a snapshot of Egypt and regional affairs amid fierce competition for the hearts and minds of international public opinion.

English-language newspapers were not new to Egypt, the first Arab nation to gain modern statehood. The Egyptian Gazette was founded in 1880, for example, shortly before the British occupation when the country was still reeling under European influence. But the events of the last three decades have seen the Weekly establish itself as a paper of quality, reflecting genuinely Egyptian views and attempting to be the best-possible record of what is happening in the region.

Unlike the propaganda media outlets that target international audiences in many countries, the Weekly has always been a reliable news source about Egypt, with analysis related to politics, economy, culture and sports. For international readers, expatriates living in Egypt, and also many Egyptians, it has offered more in-depth material.

While Cairo has long been a hub for the foreign media in the Middle East and foreign journalists have for decades worked in Egypt, the country’s national media remains one of the main sources of information, news and opinion about the country.

As a veteran Middle East correspondent for an international news agency based in Cairo, I recall that the editors were adamant that local staff summarise the main stories in the national newspapers on a daily basis. The exercise was not only meant to understand the news from an Egyptian and regional perspective, but also to cherry-pick it for Western-style reporting.

For non-Arabic-speaking foreign correspondents, reading the Weekly’s unfettered reporting became a key way to track Egyptian and regional affairs, serving as an early-warning system about developing stories, views and insights and then reproducing them to be carried around the world.

In contrast to the stereotypes of state-owned media outlets being clumsy, dull, lacking in objectivity, or at times close to government propaganda tools, there has been a general feeling among international readers that the Weekly has been objective, fair, more open and more of just about playing up Egypt’s or the region’s narrative to the foreign audience.

The Weekly’s articles have been used as resources for research and policy-making by think-tanks and academic institutions in the US, Europe, China and Russia, among many other countries and regions. Foreign embassies have used the Weekly’s reporting in writing briefing and analysis papers for their governments on the political situation in Egypt and evolving circumstances in the region.

But most importantly, and as far as the essential role of the English-language media is concerned, the Weekly has been telling Egyptian and Arab stories to the outside world. Over three decades, the paper has developed a sophisticated and assertive strategy, aimed at serving the needs of foreign audiences seeking local perspectives.

Media coverage of Egypt and the Arab world inevitably plays a vital role in shaping perceptions of the Arab nations around the world, and media organisations from around the world have over the decades been devoting ever greater resources reporting from the region and covering some of its most complex stories.

Yet, recent years have also seen growing concerns among Egyptians and Arabs about the ways in which the Western media, which retains a near monopoly on global news, reports their countries. For them, the coverage of the Arab world in the Western media has been largely negative and has not lived up to standards of balanced reporting.

Such criticisms have been given a high profile by Arab officials, and they have also been echoed by the Arab media and ordinary people in the Arab world. In the past, such criticisms have centred around bias and distortion or the little space given to reporting on the lives of the peoples of the region. More recently, they have focused on the Western media receiving payments from Arab governments for propaganda campaigns or for planting official content or for entering into partnerships.

Lobbyists in the United States and Europe are being paid huge sums of money by some oil-rich Arab governments to deliver their messages and to cultivate support from government officials, lawmakers, think-tanks and media personnel for their policies and agendas in Western countries.

As an Arab journalist, I am sure that this is quite touchy terrain, as many in the profession and outside would say that within the Arab countries themselves the press is increasingly being tightly controlled by governments or manipulated by special political and business interests trying to reshape the regional information environment with massive infusions of money.

Nevertheless, this is precisely the point I would like to bring up here. As the Weekly celebrates its 30th anniversary, it remains committed to trying to stand for media professionalism during a time of political complexity, reporting challenges, financial difficulties and fierce industry competition.  

Increasing globalisation, a new aggressiveness in news production, and technological developments that speed up the flow of information and analysis on the Internet are all challenging the industry. Part of the special challenge for the media in the Arab world is related to political influence, domestic conflicts and regional turmoil and their impact on the freedom of the press.

Today, there are several English-language media outlets operating in the region, mostly receiving financial backing from royal families in the Gulf and promoting their agendas. Thanks to the devotion and perseverance of its staff and contributors, the Weekly has maintained its high professional standards to provide an honest picture of what journalists are dealing with at this unprecedented time for the media worldwide.

As the Arab world continues to be subject to misrepresentation and misreporting, the Weekly remains dedicated to the region’s core issues, with content that helps to present the true meanings of events unfolding in Egypt and the Middle East and even to reshape the world’s awareness of the region in a way not influenced or framed by foreign agendas.

Arab journalists writing for international audiences realise that the world around them is not perfect, but like colleagues around the world they are writing a rough draft of the history of their region even as they cannot say definitively that it is in fact the way things are. Truth is not a finished story, and the more such journalists are able to get their voices heard, the more mutual understanding of the facts and, ultimately, of the truth, can emerge.

The present author has worked for nearly 40 years in international news organisations and has seen how one key function of the Western media is to shape the story and set the Middle East agenda for Western governments and probably for the international community too. Alternative Middle East reporting provided by papers such as the Weekly can break that cycle of monopoly and help to make the voices of the region more widely heard by the public, in the decision-making circles and research establishments without filtering.

On its 100th anniversary on 6 December 1977, The Washington Post wrote in an editorial that “the Post intends to stand for Washington, Washington’s interest and Washington, first, last and all the time.” The Al-Ahram Weekly’s founders could not have put it better themselves, through endorsing the sentiment and hope of Egypt and the Arab world, although they were keenly aware of the difficulties and the challenges ahead.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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