"Certainly the number of daily and weekly papers has increased dramatically in the last decade, with many adopting a critical position towards the government and regime. Hitherto uncrossed red lines have been repeatedly crossed, and now, argue many commentators, the backlash is setting in. The battle lines have been drawn: on one side are those who complain that press freedom is being curtailed, on the other those that complain such freedom is being abused.
The background to the confrontation is succinctly set out by Baheya, one of Egypt's most popular bloggers. She plots the rise of the independent press from the mid-1990s, when the falling readership of party newspapers such as Al-Wafd and Al-Arabi -- a reflection of growing disenchantment with party politics -- left a gap in the market that was quickly filled by independent publications, Al-Dostour being among the first.
Critics of the independent press claim that having created their own platform, independent papers then set about abusing the freedoms that allowed them to operate in the first place as they systematically attacked senior government officials.
"What is being done here is as much politics as it is journalism. We are being asked to be a normal kind of press in abnormal circumstances," says Bilal Fadl of Al- Dostour. "Because people haven't been able to practise politics outside on the street they practise it in the few mediums available, and the independent press is one of them."
If the Egyptian press has been affected by a generational shift, it has also been affected by a financial one. Many independent papers are bankrolled by businessmen who usually shy away from controversy. The allure of the industry, though, and the hope of taking a chunk of the multi million pound revenue of the national press, has proved too tempting."
Reading that last bit, it might be tempting to ascribe the growth of independent media in Egypt solely to "market forces." While that's certainly a part of the explanation, the article noticeably does not mention the reason why that market is hot, why many Egyptians now feel entitled to independent journalism that confronts and is critical of power: Al-Jazeera (which is subsidized by the government of Qatar.) Perhaps it's a testament to Al-Jazeera's significance that this is simply taken for granted.
The growth of Arab independent media which has come in Al-Jazeera's wake is a genuine revolution, one which has yet to be noticed by U.S. policymakers in any significant way. Of the Bush administration's many blunders, its confrontational stance toward Al-Jazeera must surely rank as one of its worst. Not only did this effectively alienate an incredibly important audience, it signaled to the Arab world that George W. Bush was only interested in "freedom" to the extent that it comported with his vision of an America unconstrained by law. Regardless, the Arab media revolution continues, and the U.S. can neither control it nor dictate its outcome. We can and must engage with it, however, if we genuinely want a more liberal, democratic Middle East.
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