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Thursday, April 25, 2013

News Web Site in Egypt Abruptly Shuts Down

Egypt Independent, the country’s premier independent English language news source, ceased publication on Thursday after four years during which its staff chronicled the waning days of the Mubarak regime, the outbreak of revolution in their own country and across the Arab world, military rule and most recently the administration of the first democratically elected Islamist leader of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi.

Investors behind the paper cited financial difficulties as the reason for the closure, but the newspaper’s editorial staff, and many of its supporters, said they suspected a political motive behind the closure of the left-leaning outlet, which has been stridently critical of Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed political party.

On Thursday, the editorial staff released the final issue on the Web site and as a fully downloadable document on Scribd.com after investors “ordered a last-minute stoppage” of the presses “after scrutinizing the issue’s content,” said the editorial staff in an online statement.

In an essay published on the Web site Tahrir Squared, prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah extolled the paper as a “revolutionary” voice and attacked its closure as a political move meant to silence dissent.

“Today the owners decided to kill the paper, they claim financial trouble, but in reality the big business behind Al Masry Al Youm is no longer interested in a true revolutionary voice,” he wrote.

Egypt Independent had to be killed, you might think that an English paper in Arabic speaking revolutionary Egypt cannot be that dangerous, but where else do you find a paper run by young women? A paper that became home for an amalgam of misfits and radicals without compromising them, no one had to wear a suit, not physical or metaphorical. Hell, even when the editorial team was forced to deal with the business side and prove the paper could be a profit center they did it without compromising on their radicalism.

Staff members of Egypt Independent spoke often of the paper’s “vision,” a term that denoted an institutional commitment to professionalism and civil rights in a country emerging from generations of dictatorship, and where newspapers more often than not serve as mouthpieces for the state, political parties or powerful men.

Editor in chief Lina Attalah posted an update to Twiitter on Thursday announcing the end of the newspapers’ four year run.

In an editor’s letter, Ms. Attalah described the paper as an “intellectual laboratory” committed to challenging “the plague of self-censorship” and venality that afflicts so many Egyptian newspapers.

While Ms. Attalah said the staff was told two months ago that changes were needed to keep the paper afloat, she described the final decision to close its doors as a shock: in the form of a note left with the office receptionist.

Abdel Moneim Saeed, the new chairperson of the Al-Masry Media Corporation board, said closing Egypt Independent, which he argued had only constituted a financial burden on the institution, was a measure of his capacity as “a surgeon who has to conduct the fine operation of letting go of the child in order for the mother to survive.”

It is a fine operation indeed, if only Al-Masry was indeed our mother, and if only its survival was conditional on our closure, and not a much-needed reinvigorating and rigorous review of its institutional practice.

But it is also only a fine operation if closure is given its due attention, as much as openings are. In other words, a closure transcends a letter announcing it on hard copy left with the receptionist for the Egypt Independent team.

As Egypt struggles to emerge from the shadow of president Mubarak, overthrown by street protests in 2011, and move into a more democratic future under the rule of its new Islamist leaders, Ms. Attalah wrote that she considered one of the key questions for professional journalists to be, “How do we become active mediators as opposed to silent vehicles of information?”

As Egypt has gone through an extended period of political turmoil, the paper has been a go-to source of news for international readers hungry for detailed news about the country. On Thursday, there as an online outpouring over news of it’s closure from Egyptians, foreign journalists and Middle East analysts.

Kristen Chick, a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, expressed her concern for the fate of the newspaper’s Web site - an invaluable journalism archive of four critical years of Egyptian history - in an update she posted to Twitter.

In her editor’s letter, Ms. Attalah said the fate of the Web site and its archives was an open question, and argued that the collected works of her staff should remain available online.

“The archive transcend the legality of copyrights and follow the promise of the Internet as a democratic and open medium,” she wrote. “Not only should it stay online, it should also be an active site of memory and production, constantly linked and relinked to new content.”

Egypt Independent is the second independent English-language publication to shut down in Egypt in the last twelve months. One year ago this week, The Daily News Egypt abruptly closed after a seven year run when investors also claimed unbearable financial losses. Several laid-off reporters from that paper found their way to the Egypt Independent. In an article published in the last issue, editor Amira Salah Ahmed joked, “History is supposed to repeat itself but not this soon, right?”

In her final letter, Ms. Attalah said that she and her staff “strive to continue and reincarnate in a new configuration,” and vowed that their work would continue in some new form. Their readers, she said, had not seen the last of them. “We leave you with the hope of coming back soon, stronger and unbeaten, ready to incessantly travel to uncharted territories of storytelling.”