15 March 2017

Egypt: Aswat Masriya, the Last Word

editorial

"Everything has an end, even dreams", whispered a friend saying goodbye to me at Beirut airport on the last day of three weeks I spent in Lebanon in the mid-nineties. Borrowed from a song of Fairouz, the sentence was brief and painful. I could not answer, as if everything froze inside me. My reply was long embrace close to my chest without uttering a word. Then I turned around heading to board my flight returning to Cairo.

That Scene returned to my memory this morning on the last day of the editorial work in Aswat Masriya (AM) which was established by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) that announced last Saturday closing the website after nearly six years of operation. Since the beginning, the project was distinguished through providing a professional example for unbiased covering of the Egyptian affairs applying the international press standards of accuracy, impartiality and maintaining the same distance from all parties. TRF provided the site services for free to the Egyptian media. The site has succeeded in establishing loyalty with the public.

According to the internet monitoring site, Alex, the visitors of AM spend about five minutes on the site in average against about four and a half minutes on sites like Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera networks despite the diversity of their coverage and the size of their capabilities. Despite the sponsorship of TRF for the project throughout the years of its operation, signs of unease emerged after it became well known because of the confusion between it and Reuters news agency, especially as it was working from its headquarters in Cairo. TRF has established a joint stock company to manage the project. The shares of the company are now owned by three journalists known for their high professionalism and prestige: Hani Shukrallah, Najla Al-Emari and Salma Hussein.

They shouldered this task in the framework of supporting unbiased and independent press. When I took up my job as editor-in-chief of AM and director of the company about two years ago, I was keen to stress the distinguished character of this news service. In some cases, I posted on my Facebook account links of news or stories in which we excelled the local and international media, including Reuters itself. I raised the slogan "Aswat Masriya is the mother of foreign (media)" to enhance the sense of loyalty and excellence of the working team. Since late in 2015, the team obtained five local, regional and global journalism awards. It was chosen by the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University through a survey among students earlier this year as "the most professional website in Egypt."

Along my term, it did not happen that an official from TRF, nor any of the shareholders, intervened regarding the published material. There was a complete separation between management and the editorial making the project a model dreamt of by every journalist. The project was non-profit and thus frees us from any financial pressure. However, things could go the other way of our will. Early last year, TRF told us that the main financier of the project the British Foreign Office said it would not provide new funding after the end of the current operational year that lasts till the end of March 2017. The Foundation has sought to raise alternative financing to no avail then turned to address Arab and Egyptian investors who may be ready to invest in the project; but also without result.

The Foundation has rejected an offer from AM team to transfer the project shares to them, as happened in the project Aswat al-Iraq, which was established by the Foundation but has also stopped now. The Foundation considered that the proposal is not practical, and it is essential to have an investor who has sufficient financial support, a business plan and a commitment to the editorial line of the site so as to maintain its status and the size of effort invested by the Foundation in the project, as well as the Thomson Reuters name. In the end, the decision was to close the project by the end of March. Some differences happened between the staff and the management regarding the closure, which makes the responsible manager in an enviable position.

You belong to the management but you are on the front line between the two parties, both curses you if any side considered you tend to the other side. But Thomson Reuters Foundation has always stressed that it is committed to resolving any dispute according to Egyptian law. I might confirm here that these differences are not for financial reasons as much as a reaction from the team as they see the project they have been associated with, they developed and raised its name high is in danger of vanishing from existence.

And I can assure that all disputes would end if AM was to be kept alive, especially since Thomson Reuters did not skimp, as I mentioned, to provide any support for the project over the years. Thomson Reuters Foundation now has approaches from at least two prominent Egyptian investors in the field of media. Despite the website stops filing stories today, fingers are crossed that an agreement takes place during the next few days to bring it back to life. It is now in the hands of shareholders, Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Egyptians investors, and the hands of God before everything.

If it ended up closing the project, I would hold all the team of Aswat Masriya close to my chest, and would tell them "everything has an end, even dreams." But my last word would be "never give up."

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