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Managing Government Influence over the Press

Throughout Egypt’s modern history, Egyptian governments have exercised varying degrees of control over the press, sometimes severely restricting the domain of free expression. In order to pave the way for a full transition to democracy, Egypt’s press should be granted a significant degree of independence from the government.

The first step in this direction would be to abolish the Ministry of Information. Successive governments have used the information minister position as a tool to serve the narrow interests of the governing elite and to exercise control over media content. Eliminating this ministry is important and critical to the opening up of Egypt’s press system.

Along these lines, and more generally, the sway of state-owned news outlets should be significantly reduced and independent press outlets should both be encouraged and allowed to flourish. Given the power that the Egyptian government (or any government) wields, it should not be granted the right to operate a disproportionate number of outlets or dominate the news environment. To this end, we suggest that the Egyptian government be allowed to operate a maximum of two newspapers and two broadcast channels. Limiting government-owned outlets to a total of four would allow the government to provide its perspective within the bounds of professionalism dictated by the independent media regulatory body discussed in the previous section and, at the same time, strictly limit the government’s ability to dominate news output. Under this arrangement, the number of privately owned outlets would far exceed the number of government- owned outlets.

One potential obstacle to reducing the number of government-owned news outlets in Egypt is the enormous size of the current state-news apparatus. In order to facilitate the necessary changes, most of Egypt’s state-owned news outlets would thus need to be privatized, and the total number of staff working at the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ertu) would need to be drastically reduced from its current total of forty-three thousand. ertu staff could be reduced through a system that aims to vet out inefficient members and apply an incentive program where salaries and promotions are tied to performance. Taken together, these measures to professionalize Egyptian journalism and reduce the government’s influence over press output could ensure a more democratic press and help facilitate Egypt’s complete transition to democracy.

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