Between professionalism and consumerism in Egypt - training the Arab media

Although Arab universities acknowledge the growing influence of new media and have expanded communications departments throughout the Arab world, journalist-training programs for young Arab reporters are scarce, and existing journalist-training programs are often funded and run by non-Arab organizations. Ismail Alexandrani looks at two recent programs in Egypt.
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Young journalists during a table discussion at a recent journalism-training workshop in Cairo. R.R.

ALEXANDRIA, June 27, 2009 (MENASSAT) - It has become part of being a young Arab journalist – anticipating training programs and workshops, usually funded and run by non-Arab organizations.

Arab universities acknowledge the growing influence of new media and have expanded their media and communications departments throughout the Arab world in recent years. Despite this fact, journalist-training programs run by Arabs for young Arab reporters are scarce - in Egypt as in the rest of the Arab world.

While foreign training programs give hope to young journalists to develop their skills as media workers, they remain problematic in perpetuating the so-called “foreigner complex.”

In the Arab world, the last century has been dominated by the belief that what is produced by foreigners is of better quality than that produced by locals.

And while other fields such as agriculture and industry have been met with more quantifiable success, young Arab journalists are still flocking to foreign journalism 101 seminars and workshops because they see the resources and the potential for career advancement.

Unfair comparisons

Oddly, training programs targeting Arabs and conducted by non-Arabs are usually more beneficial and closer to the participants’ needs, interests and desires than those conducted by Arabs, who are often detached from the realities of Arab youth.  

However, the main challenge for youth is the language used in these programs. And since only a small number of Arabs in the media are fluent in foreign languages, the vast majority of young journalists await programs that are held in their mother tongue.  

When looking at foreign-led training programs and local initiatives, it would be unrealistic to try and compare the two, as the latter is practically non-existent.

Some of the more prestigious European non-profit run journalist training courses in Egypt have included the annual “YLVP” (Young Leaders Visitors Program)  offered by the Swedish Institute,  the Euro-Mediterranean Journalists Academy, Deutsche Welle radio and the courses at the American University of Cairo's Kamal Adham Center for Journalism.

Self-described as grassroots, non-profit, public-diplomacy programs, they were designed to usher in "new standards of journalism" in the Arab world. At the same time, they are considered representative of western countries in their approach to the Islamic and Arab world and the Middle East. 

This is not to deny that Arab non-profit media training initiatives are slowly gaining in numbers, but their low costs are normally associated with western funding initiatives versus local or national government dollars.


The status of Arab media training programs is not always grim. A quick survey of local initiatives in Egypt illustrates that journalist-training programs are geared towards newbie journalists and not to experienced journalists trying to expand their skill sets.

Two programs were conducted in June. One program called “Youth for change” was organized by the Women’s Media Center based in Amman, Jordan, and the second - "Online Journalism: Anyone can write," - was sponsored by the Goethe Institute in Cairo and was held by the Arab-German website “Li-Lak."

The general guidelines of the two programs can help differentiate the teaching methods of Arabs and foreigners – of course only as a sample of the different approaches in training.
The Women’s Media Center training course targeted a specific group of people – media students and young journalists – and it did not budge on these conditions.  

At Youth for Change, 15 journalists from Syria and 5 from Egypt participated in the 9-day workshop. Participants were never required to go into the field to report on actual street-level events, but were instead set up in their offices to research current events from a distance. The priority was for participants to be aware of “positive discriminative language" in regards to gender, when writing.

And by the end of the 9 days, participants published a variety of underdeveloped articles and posted photos of the organizers and participants on the Women's Media Center website, which seems like a promotion tool for the program.

Li-Lak ("For me-For you") was open to anyone who wants to be involved in journalism- with one exclusionary caveat: you had to know English to take the workshop.

Comparing the two programs, the participants in the Li-Lak program were on the streets for more than 80% of the time, researching and gathering facts from average Egyptians for stories, and personal profiles.

Participants were taught guidelines in both writing and photography using subject matter from their fieldwork, and by the end of the 3-day workshop; participants had a high quality blog with more than 15 written portraits and articles to view.


Of course success in these programs necessarily hinges on the quality of instruction.
The Youth for Change program featured two respected professionals in Egypt's media industry - veteran journalist and head of the Women's Media Center, Mahasin Al-Imam and journalism professor Dr. Izzat Hijab.

While participants can benefit from such experts in the field, it was clear that a non-conventional, hands-on approach, was just as lending, if not more so.
In the Li-Lak workshops it was an a huge benefit for the group to interact closely with the young trainers, as the Goethe Institute utilized instructors all under the age of 31.

In fact, after interviewing participants in the Goethe program it was obvious they were given practical examples of what it means to be successful young journalists working for local and international media outlets.

Instructors like independent Egyptian journalist and Der Spiegel reporter, Amira El Ahl, and Steffen Wurzel, a radio and web editor from Germany inspired workshop participants to believe it was indeed possible to climb the journalistic ranks.
While providing inspiration for journalists, young media workers can also cut costs for program organizers. It is unlikely that the Goethe Institute was not able to host the editor in chief of Der Spiegel or the director of “Deutsche Welle” at the workshop but the question is, how much they would charge to come all the way to Cairo as instructors?

It is rare to hear that an NGO has a budget surplus and can spend an unlimited amount of funds. In fact, most organizations are usually complaining about limited funding.

And this is where the paradox lies - between those who invested their small budget in the best possible ways to reach the best possible results, and those who had other priorities when spending what they called a “small budget.”

Class tendencies

Perhaps one of the more shocking aspects of these European-financed journalism-training courses is the fiscal responsibility shown by organizers.

Sebastian Woitsch, director of the Li-Lak website, hosted one instructor, Steffen Wurzel, in his house for the duration of the workshop, while Youth for Change was held at the Sheppard five-star hotel overlooking the Nile in Garden City district, one of the most expensive and prestigious hotels in Cairo.

These aspects of the program that do not go unnoticed by young Egyptian journalists when considering that distinguished journalists working for Egypt's biggest papers earn no more than 300 Egyptian pounds per month, roughly $53 USD.

This amount shoots up an additional 500 Egyptian ($89) pounds if they are allowed into the lone reporters union - the Journalists Syndicate.

Some of these journalists walk for many kilometers to save money on a public transportation ticket, and those coming from outside Cairo will go through inhumane conditions to save on ticket prices.

Putting these workshops in context, the question to be asked is, how does a struggling journalist feel in a 5-star hotel?

While meals and breaks in the Goethe courtyard, where Li-Lak held their workshops, were humble, yet fulfilling, the minimum cost of one person’s breakfast at Youth for Change was $50USD, a logical estimate considering that the rooms cost between $160USD and $210USD per night.
These calculations led one of the participants to conclude that every participant would have been afforded a high quality digital camera for free, if not a laptop, if the budget was used wisely.

As someone who attends most of the activities at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina it saddens me to see the repeated scene of trade practitioners attending events, only to have a delicious meal, or to get to know “significant” people on a personal level.

How demeaning it is to watch them more concerned with the food and drinks than with getting news or finding scoops during the breaks?

It is fair to assume that if such people were to attend the Li-Lak workshop, they would not have felt any discomfort for their social status or class background.

It was also not surprising to learn that one applicant was denied a place in the Youth for Change workshops because he objected to paying the $200 per night hotel costs.

He told MENASSAT that the Arab Women's Media Center program should be altered to read: “Rich youth for change."

"This or specify what change they mean and make it changing media policies by power of capital!” he said.

In regards to the foreigner complex, it is important to consider whether or not organizers genuinely take participants’ ideas and suggestions into consideration.

While the director of the Li-Lak website volunteered to carry out logistical tasks on behalf of those arriving from outside of Cairo, from booking hotels to train tickets, a suggestion from one participant in Youth for Change to house those coming from outside of Cairo in a 3-star hotel, was met with complete disregard.  

All of this not meant to deny that there were good aspects of the Youth for Change workshop, or that there were no short comings in the Li-Lak workshop, but the question that remains: should young Arab journalists wait for Arab training programs that meet their needs, or should they continue to take the training courses stewarded by Europe and the West in the hopes of gaining greater opportunities?