Journalism is a mission of credibility and responsibility. The mission involves the candid reporting of facts and events with the objective of raising the reader’s awareness of what goes on around him or her on the local and international levels. Credibility implies full, non-selective, non-biased, faithful reporting. And responsibility pertains to vigilant assessment of the impact of any commentary printed, which might naturally express opinions or sentiments that could range anywhere between positive and negative.
Transparent reporting and unbiased documentation of facts can never be compromised. However, the analysis, dissection, or critique of news items or stories is often subject to personal judgement. If the impact is expected to be positive there can be no problem in printing them, but if negative, they need to be weighed and carefully considered without haste.
These considerations are always in the air during meetings between the reporters, editors and editor-in-chief, during which all sorts of issues related to current events are raised and discussed. In this ‘editorial kitchen’, the features of the editorial meal the paper intends to present are cooked, with all the participants deciding on whether or which news warrant a report or feature, an interview or investigation. All through, reporters and editors look to the editor-in-chief, who always has the final word, with suspicion. He is on test, so to speak; if he approves the ideas suggested he would be seen as a champion of freedom of expression, if he rejects them he would be restricting that freedom.
This is what has been taking place in Watani throughout the past weeks regarding the topic of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the massive dam Ethiopia has been building on the Blue Nile since 2011 to produce hydroelectric power, which is now near completion. Whereas Ethiopia claims the GERD will work a qualitative leap in development of the country, downstream Egypt will be losing a huge portion of its vital water source if the dam reservoir is filled too fast. The Nile being the almost single source of water for Egypt, the country cannot afford to lose its water. Egypt is thus hoping an agreement with Ethiopia would be reached that would reasonably schedule the filling of the dam’s water reservoir.
The GERD, along with the Coronavirus predicament, have been the top issues in Watani’s editorial meetings of late. Undeniably, the issue of the GERD has gained the lion’s share of the attention and concern of the Egyptian public, given its potential to threaten the lifeblood of Egypt and Egyptians. Every time a round of negotiation took place among the three riparian countries involved: Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, Egyptians held their breath. Everyone hoped for an end to the procrastination, obstruction and obscurity that had characterised the Ethiopian stance in the negotiations between the three countries.
Finally, Egypt asked for intercession of the US and the World Bank, hoping it would bear fruit and take the negotiations to safe shores.
Last February, relief and optimism set in when it was announced that an agreement had been reached regarding the water quotas set for Egypt and Sudan, the schedule of filling the reservoir, the mitigation of low or high floods depending on the rainfall during the rainy season in Ethiopia, and all other relevant conditions. It appeared that the years of arduous negotiations were crowned by an announcement by the US administration that it was undertaking the drafting of the final agreement, so that representatives of all three States would return to Washington DC by the end of February 2020 to sign it.
The comfort, however, was short-lived; what happened as February closed took everyone by rude surprise. Egypt alone went to Washington and initialled the agreement. Ethiopia and Sudan never showed up. Egypt honoured her part in the agreement and committed to the final draft, and left it to the US administration and the World Bank to unravel the mystery behind the failure of the other parties to show up.
The fury and deception felt by the Egyptian public at the Ethiopian and Sudanese stances overflowed into the media. The Egyptian political leadership, however, exercised calm and restraint, refraining from comment. But the public wrath naturally found its way into our editorial meetings, with members of Watani voicing a mostly pessimistic view of the situation. Their pens were sharpened and ready to convict Ethiopia and Sudan, and their appetite open for analytical content and interviews to expose the stances of both countries, and predict the official response by Egypt.
At this point, I as editor-in-chief had to intervene to contain the overwhelming emotion and understandable wrath, and to summon wisdom and calm in handling the situation. It was wise not to agitate public opinion, and to be supportive of the Egyptian leadership in the remarkable wisdom, calm and self-restraint with which it dealt with the situation. In fact, I believe the attitude of the Egyptian leadership to be the epitome of responsibility, the responsibility I extolled at the outset of this article. The journalistic mission in this case would add value to the national endeavour, even if it makes the editor-in-chief no champion of freedom of expression in the eyes of some reporters.
13 March 2020