Al Badeel’s collapse has left Egypt with one less independent voice and spawned a round bitter finger-pointing. Jano Charbel explores the aftermath
On July 9, the former employees of Al Badeel held an event that was equal parts farewell party and angry solidarity rally.
Gathering at the now-lifeless newspaper’s headquarters in Bab El Loq, the writers, editors and office workers recited sarcastic poetry criticizing their own shareholders, and performed songs denouncing leftist businessmen.
A handwritten message posted on the office walls read, “They talk of the left and of workers, but they are worst exploiters.” Another note declared, “Administrative problems and distribution problems, but why we journalists should lose our rights?”
It was a bitter end for a publication that once proclaimed itself standard-bearer for a new generation of independent Egyptian journalism. Now Al Badeel serves as a cautionary tale for both the journalists left jobless and the investors left dealing with mountains of debt and hundreds of bitter compensation claims.
Al Badeel debuted in July 2007, and as its name implies, was meant to serve as an “alternative” to the major state-controlled newspapers and the confines of the mainstream media. Independently owned and openly leftist in its politics, the paper gradually found a niche amongst Egyptian readers, reportedly building up its circulation to around 10,000 per day. But the growing readership was accompanied by spiraling costs that couldn’t match its income. By April 2009, having incurred debts of nearly LE 18.5 million, shareholders in Al Takadom Journalism & Media Company – which owns and manages Al Badeel – voted to discontinue publication.
There was a brief hope to restructure and re-issue Al Badeel as a weekly paper or newsmagazine by May. When those plans fell through, the company officially announced its liquidation on July 4, prompting its now-former employees to stage a protest outside the Journalists’ syndicate.
As a result of Al Badeel’s collapse, more than 140 writers, editors and office workers now face an uncertain future.
Another repercussion is that its readers, and Egyptians in general, have lost another independent news source. Coverage of sensitive issues featured prominently in the pages of this left-leaning independent paper including: workers’ unrest, police abuses, sectarian conflicts, and human rights violations. Readership increased during the paper’s coverage of the Mahalla uprising in April 2008, the Shoura Council fire in August 2008, illicit organ-transplants, and the War on Gaza from December 2008-January 2009.
Mohammad Abdel Quddous the Secretary of the Liberties Committee in the Journalists’ Syndicate described the liquidation of Al Badeel as “a major setback, especially because this newspaper went under due to its own internal mismanagement and not due to external governmental interferences – as was the case with a number of independent and opposition newspapers in the past.”
The aftermath of the Al Badeel experiment has descended into finger-pointing among the editorial staff and ownership.
Despite its notable performance in terms of providing breaking news and exclusives, the internal politics of Al Badeel were characterized by power struggles between the editorial team and the general assembly of shareholders, inadequate publicity, a failure to further increase circulation and readership, along with severe difficulties in attracting advertising sponsors. Numerous sit-ins by journalists and editors were held at the paper’s headquarters and at the Journalists’ Syndicate over the course of these past two years; more are expected.
Al Badeel’s Chief Editor Khaled El Balshy (who replaced the ailing Dr. Mohamed El Sayyed Said in late 2008) laid the blame for the company’s struggles at the feet of ownership, particularly what he called “the big three” – Adel El Mashad, Sabry Fawzy, and Sayyed Karawya, who own 85% of the company’s shares.
“These so-called leftist businessmen, have proven to be more profit-driven than openly capitalistic businessmen; they only managed to victimize us journalists and leftists,” El Balshy said.
Fawzy, in an interview with Al Masry Al Yom said the owners were victims of editorial mismanagement and their own independence.
“We are small-scale entrepreneurs who are not affiliated in any way to big wealthy businessmen, influential sheikhs, media tycoons, or to the government, and we were not willing to sell-out to these people,” Fawzy said. “As a result we had very few sponsors for advertisements, and were working with extremely limited resources. This company’s total capital was only LE 4 million, yet we ended up with losses amounting to LE 18.3 million.”
Fawzy charged El Balshy and the other editors with hiring too many people and tossing around too many high salaries, creating an unviable financial model.
“The editorial team overloaded the newspaper with employees, but nevertheless we offered them the highest salaries and best benefits that any independent Egyptian paper could offer,” he said. “We were paying a total of LE 380,000 each month for salaries and benefits, while Al Dustour newspaper only pays its employees a total of LE 180,000 per month. We simply couldn’t continue as a daily paper while holding on to all these employees and offering them these high rates.”
When the paper was forced to cease publication in April, ownership proposed shrinking the staff and re-launching as a weekly.
“We would not need 90-some journalists for such an effort, and we just could not hold onto such a large number of correspondents in all the different governorates,” Fawzy said.
The editorial team rejected that plan and proposed keeping the entire staff with across-the-board salary reductions of up to 25%. But the shareholders opted for liquidation instead.
“We were not presented with any viable working plans with which to publish the paper as a weekly,” Fawzy said.
For El Balshy, the more immediate and personal cost is that of his now-unemployed colleagues and employees.
“Many of these people had quit their previous jobs in order to work for this newspaper while others have recently married, and there are those who have children to feed and families to support,” he said. “All of these people are now out on the streets.”
Holding his nine-month-old baby boy in his arms journalist Tamer El Mahdi said, “I still cannot believe that Al Badeel has closed down. My wife Mona and I have been working at this newspaper since its very beginning. I was the paper’s correspondent in El Daqahliya Governorate while Mona was the correspondent in El Gharbiya. We got married shortly after joining Al Badeel, and nine months ago my son Kareem here was born. This month we both lost our jobs, now I don’t know how I’m going to support my family. We are currently looking for work, but until we do so we shall all be reliant upon my deceased father’s meager pension, which my mother receives each month.”
With the paper’s immediate fate decided, The focus now shifts to the compensation and severance claims of the employees. Fawzy said a judicially-appointed liquidation committee will determine the amounts distributed after the selling off of the company’s assets and equipment.
In the meantime, Fawzy said he and the other shareholders have done their best to honor their obligations to the staff.
“We have already provided the employees with four months of pay since April when there was no circulation; we ended up paying this money from our own pockets and private accounts. I am willing to accept these losses that I incurred,” he said. “We would have liked to keep all these people in employment but this was not financially or journalistically feasible. Unions or syndicates may operate in this way but a private company cannot.”
The collapse of Al Badeel is particularly bitter for employees like Hamada Kashef, one of eight Badeel writers who were initially denied membership in the Journalists’ Syndicate in 2008 along with two other journalists from the independent Al Dustour newspaper.
In response they embarked upon a hunger strike and sleep-in at the syndicate during July 2008. Kashef was able to sustain his hunger strike for three days, while a number of his striking co-workers were hospitalized as a result. “We struggled in order to make our noble newspaper shine brighter, and we struggled in the name of our newspaper to gain membership in the syndicate, yet in the end we found ourselves unemployed and without our paper,” Kashef said.
Now media observers are left analyzing the El Badeel experiment and wondering what went wrong. One veteran journalist, who worked for 18 months at El Badeel before resigning, said both the newsroom leaders and the owners carried their share of the blame.
“Sure, the three big owners made some mistakes, and they must shoulder their responsibility for these mistakes. They made some serious errors in terms of advertising and distribution; plus they only self-publicized the newspaper with advertisements posted in the metro stations and on public buses, they failed to run ads on TV like Al Shorouk Newspaper did,” said the journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the “most serious mistakes” were made by El Balshy and his editorial team, the journalist said, especially in terms of hiring practices and advertising policies.
El Balshy’s “firm leftist stances led to a rigidity and impracticality in dealing with advertisers,” he said. “In addition to this, El Balshy’s editorial team hired far too many journalists, several of whom were under-qualified, and in doing so he failed to keep sensationalist journalism under control; this in turn led to law suits being filed against the paper’s contributors and against the newspaper itself. These legal procedures consumed a lot of time, money and energy. All of these factors combined to produce working conditions in El Badeel which were chaotic, unprofessional and very frustrating.”
Despite their differences and the open bitterness on display, nearly all the journalists, editors, and shareholders speak fondly of their time at Al Badeel, many describing it as a second family. Several former employees and executives said they were going to miss the newspaper, which they described as “courageous,” “unique” and “very independent.”