Losses and corruption, the collapse of distribution, billions of debts for taxes, customs, insurance, and the flight of advertisers are some of the critical crises in the state-owned national press institutions in Egypt. Over the years, the Egyptian government neglected this issue, that drains state taxes and its budget, and decided after a long silence to sell assets owned by national press institutions in an attempt to reap billions of pounds.
According to news sites quoting officials of the National Press Authority, the government’s plans include selling land and real estate owned by state-owned press institutions and discussing the private sector’s participation in managing it. The sources said that the size of the heavy losses in those institutions, estimated at EGP 20 billion (about $1.2 billion), reinforces the government’s tendency to ask Egyptian and Arab business people to help stop this bleeding. She added that several Saudi and Emirati business people are at the top of the applicants to buy those shares, the size of which has not yet been determined.
Among the plans put forward in this context is the liquidation of Dar Al Maaref public publishing house, which owns a large building on the Nile Corniche in Cairo, and the distribution of its employees to other institutions, along with the demolition of its building adjacent to the Egyptian TV building. Also, several journals for each institution will be merged into one or two editions (journal or magazine) to save costs.
The plans, the details of which have not been officially announced yet, came in line with an official statement of the Council of Ministers last January, regarding what he called a plan to reform press institutions, including:
- Not to open the door for appointment to any national press institution and prohibit contracts.
- Prohibition of extending over the pension age, except in extreme necessity, for senior writers only. Coordination in this regard is done with the National Press Authority.
- Work to settle the debts of these institutions by exploiting many untapped assets owned by these newspapers, as well as studying the position of all publications and taking a decisive stance over them.
Moustafa Madbouly, the prime minister, called for the courage to begin implementing the proposed solutions, stressing the state’s continued support for national press institutions, provided that these institutions continue to achieve the purpose of their establishment.
Degradation and losses
Government decisions came late, after the deterioration of the national press institutions’ situation, especially the losses and the debt that has accumulated. Accumulated losses exceeded EGP 3 billion ($188.8 million), and the size of the debts of press institutions increased to EGP 3 billion as bank loans. As for the debts of press institutions to the tax authority, they reached more than EGP 11.6 billion ($730.1 million), in addition to the debt of state press institutions in the form of customs, insurances, bodies, and companies.
Newspaper distribution numbers at national institutions also deteriorated, as the average circulation in weekly newspapers reached 200,000 copies only, and daily newspaper circulation decreased to 150,000 copies. Meanwhile, Minister of State for Information, Osama Heikal, expected that the paper press would disappear, because of the high prices and the fact that it must be distributed free of charge, according to his previous statements.
Heikal mentioned newspapers that pay attention to analysis and research beyond the news, so that the reader finds something new in the newspapers: “There is no profession in the world without accountability, and there is a newspaper with 300 journalists, and it distributes 70 copies.”
Corruption of institutions
The losses of press institutions and the distribution’s deterioration came in conjunction with suspicions of corruption related to the heads of boards of directors and editors-in-chief of these newspapers.
A few years ago, the judicial authorities opened investigations into corruption charges with Ibrahim Saada, Ibrahim Nafei, and Samir Ragab, heads of the boards of directors of the Akhbar al-Youm, al-Ahram and Dar al-Tahrir institutions. After the January 25 revolution, cases were raised, as gifts from national press organisations donated billions to executives and judges.
Recently, press sources revealed that the Administrative Control Authority had opened an extensive investigation into incidents related to facilitating the seizure of state-owned land in various provinces. These cases indicated that the journalist Yasser Rizk, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Akhbar al-Youm, was involved. The sources pointed out that Yasser Rezk and his wife, the writer Amani Dargham, played the role of mediator for a group of well-known businessmen in exchange for money exceeding EGP 80 million ($5 million) in total.
Observers said that these investigations are unlikely to reach the conviction of any senior official in these institutions, for two reasons. The first reason is that the regime itself protects the officials in these institutions, and the administration will never allow its loyal men to be mutilated. The second reason is that corruption in these institutions is legal, as officials in press institutions have legalised all their corrupt practices, through decisions of the Board of Directors and the General Assembly appointed by the regime.
Egyptian opponents say that the decline in distribution rates came because of the very narrow margin of freedom that the Egyptian regime allows in these newspapers, which made readers unwilling to read or buy them.