- Life Style
Hanan Solayman’s decision to resign from her work as a full-time journalist in 2010 to think of her own project was not an easy one. It was preceded by years of study and preparation, prompted by a longing for a new media platform — one borne out of the margins.
Mandara Online is now turning into a reality as an online news portal dedicated to 11 governorates in Upper Egypt, an initiative conceived in response to media centralization in Cairo. The portal, found at mandaraonline.com, strives to present a new vision for the long-neglected region that is home to more than 35 percent of Egypt’s population.
“Every year, there is at least one incident of sectarian strife, mostly in Upper Egypt. Media in Cairo usually shed light on the incident and its negative aspects, and then draw a stereotypical image about Upper Egypt,” Solayman tells Egypt Independent. “But did this reporter stay for the rest of the year, trying to understand why such issues happen? Do they understand the problems of the people before blaming them? Upper Egypt’s problems are ticking bombs.”
Mandara, meaning guesthouse in the Upper Egyptian dialect, will launch shortly in six Upper Egyptian governorates in the first stage.
The main editorial team will be based in Cairo in the first stage and will receive news stories and features from journalists reporting on the ground in Upper Egyptian governorates. This central, Cairo-based management could be a limitation for the project’s ambitions, a matter its creators are aware of.
“As the project picks up, we hope that we will have a bigger editorial team with a newsroom in every governorate, so that the work will be less centralized,” Solayman says, adding that her work as editor-in-chief would be supported by a managing editor who is more experienced in Upper Egyptian culture.
Marginalization was Solayman’s main concern from the outset. She examined the possibilities of focusing her project either on Upper Egypt or Sinai, as the two most isolated geographical spots in the country. But she placed her bid on Upper Egypt because of the huge population living there and the difficulty of operating inside Sinai.
In print media, coverage of local news is limited to a small section where news items about the governorates are listed next to each other, usually focusing on the achievements of governors appointed by the president rather than elected by local citizens. Only at times of crisis or violence do governorates get a little more media space.
State TV dedicates a few channels across the country to local coverage, but they are often accused of not fulfilling non-Cairo residents’ needs for media platforms that genuinely represent them.
“Before the revolution, state-owned media institutionalized the idea of media centralization. Governorate news usually means news of the governor and what he achieved,” Mahmoud al-Desouky, an independent journalist working in the southern governorate of Qena, tells Egypt Independent.
Desouky thinks local communities have never had the chance to voice their concerns. But with the rise of privately owned media — and the extensive use of social media, following the revolution — local reporters have found their way.
“Upper Egypt became the epicenter of many events, and more local journalists found the chance to challenge media centralization and instantly report on the news with a local perspective, mostly to independent newspapers like El Badil and Al-Masry Al-Youm,” he says.
A well-traveled entrepreneur, Solayman understands how local media is critical to media development outside of Egypt.
“When I traveled abroad and visited several media outlets, I discovered that we lack strong local media. Local media in many countries is the core of journalism. Journalists usually start their careers as correspondents to their own local media outlets in small cities before they advance in their careers,” Solayman says.
Initiatives like Solayman’s aside, prominent journalist Yasser al-Zayat thinks decentralization should happen on the decision-making level as well.
“Decision-making in Egypt is highly centralized in Cairo, which affects the flow of information from Cairo to other governorates. Such a top-down flow of news will make readers in other governorates trust the central media outlet more than the local one,” he says.
Zayat argues that local media will only become stronger when decision-making is decentralized.
“In a country like the US, local newspapers enjoy higher distribution rates than The New York Times and the Washington Post because decisions are made locally,” he says.
The new media platform is currently on the lookout for fresh journalism graduates. “I want to focus on fresh graduates who can start their career in a small place and grow with it,” Solayman says.
She steers clear of hiring professional journalists, while keeping bloggers and citizen journalists for social media.
For her, hiring fresh graduates from Upper Egypt is a way to respond to the problem of having no local employment opportunities in the profession.
Having graduated from journalism school at Cairo University, Solayman always found her Upper Egyptian colleagues having to leave their governorates and stay in Cairo to find a proper job in news.
“Why should they leave their hometowns to work in another city? Isn’t the state obliged to provide them with job opportunities in their hometowns? Others return to their governorates and work in places that don’t match their specializations. Why do they have to come to Cairo in the first place to study journalism?” Solayman asks.
In Upper Egypt, there is only one journalism department in the Minya University Faculty of Arts, and it is not as academically renowned as the one at Cairo University.
Solayman is not concerned about what form of media she is presenting so long as it is focused and sensitive to Upper Egyptian culture. For her, form aside, Upper Egyptians will be attracted to any media specifically tailored for them.
“They say print media is about to turn extinct. I cannot say this is true of Upper Egypt. If people find print media or any other type specifically dedicated for them, if they see a platform directly addressing their concerns, they will support it,” she says.
However, the chances of an online media platform in an area marred with poverty and illiteracy raise some concerns.
Ideology and power politics are also elements that Solayman is consciously staying away from, even though they have been critical players in media institutions. Her focus is on a local approach toward the culture of Upper Egyptian society, its problems and its aspirations.
Zayat thinks that focusing on the direct problems of the people and their simple concerns away from politics will establish stronger connections and build more credibility and trust between audiences and new media outlets.
Besides fighting its grand battle against centralized narratives, Mandara is facing its own battle to exist, which entails state bureaucracy and security checks.
The media platform won a grant from the International Press Institute in 2012 as an innovative media project, among other winning projects initiated by The Guardian, the AFP Foundation, and Media Trust in the UK. But in Egypt, the image was never as bright.
Mandara, registered as a nonprofit organization in order to be able to receive grants, faced difficulties in getting the necessary government approvals to receive its awarded financial support. The issue is in tandem with increasing wariness from the state toward NGOs receiving foreign funding.
Solayman tells Egypt Independent that the Social Affairs and Insurance Ministry has to investigate the nature of the grant before approving it, while “security checks by the national security apparatus do not acknowledge time limitations.”
She says national security has been investigating the initiative owners and the sources of the grant given to them.
“In the circumstances Egypt is in, I fully understand the need to monitor any foreign funding for activities, but just like I’m appreciating the circumstances, authorities need to respect the law and work within time limitations,” she says.
The project launch was delayed twice because of the inability to receive the grant on time, which has made Solayman think of other alternatives, like resorting to private sponsorships.
But such an alternative seems to be another dilemma. Solayman says the biggest challenge is to choose which investors should be addressed because certain business tycoons may gear the new initiative toward their own interests.
“A new media platform in Upper Egypt is attractive for many, but we do not want our project to be politicized, as we have seen happen with other media outlets owned by business tycoons,” she says.
For Solayman, in a context where the two prevailing business models for media ownership in Egypt are either state-owned or business-owned, both negatively affect editorial policies.
But dependence on grants raises a concern of sustainability, for which Solayman has a response.
“We will make our business model sustainable through online ads and licensing some of the content to keep the business going,” she says.
Meanwhile, Mandara has already occupied its space online with a catchy, cartoon-based home page design and a motto that reads, “Tales of the South.”