01/31/2013 - 06:00

Public versus private

Egypt's nuclear power program has faced a number of challenges lately. First, the voices of environmental groups, who prefer to pursue renewable energy sources like solar and wind instead of nuclear, have been growing in prominence. Second, the proposed nuclear power facility at El-Dabaa has sparked demonstrations from area residents. And in January it was reported that the El-Dabaa project would be delayed until a newly elected legislature could convene to address the matter.

Independent newspapers and magazines have been dealing with all of this professionally. For the first time, because of the increased freedom of speech that has followed from Egypt's revolution, media outlets have been able to devote attention to groups that oppose the nuclear program -- the revolution has opened the door for new segments of society to express their opinions and viewpoints. Before the revolution, the regime did not allow any article to be published that criticized the nuclear program. This was especially true once Gamal Mubarak, son of former President Hosni Mubarak, announced at a party conference in 2006 that the program would be restarted.

Government-owned media outlets, however, continue to function much as they did before the revolution. Last August, President Mohammed Morsi announced that Cairo was considering a renewal of the on-again, off-again nuclear program, which he characterized as a purely civilian effort that would provide clean energy to Egypt's citizens. Government-owned newspapers highlighted Morsi's statement on their front pages. Around the same time, newspapers devoted considerable space to a report by the Ministry of Electricity and Energy stating that the nuclear program would create jobs and provide an economic boost to the El-Dabaa area. Independent newspapers, meanwhile, were free to focus on criticisms by groups that oppose renewing the program.

Same and different. My colleague Pramit Pal Chaudhuri has described the media landscape in his nation of India. The media market there is very large and competitive, and Chaudhuri discusses the negative aspects of that competition -- the market "is driven by short-term concerns and little room exists for in-depth policy analysis." But in Egypt, with its smaller media market, competition is a positive thing, especially now that independent newspapers are beginning to flourish. Competition here has actually made the media more interested in presenting in-depth coverage and analysis of events. But the Egyptian media do share some problems with their counterparts in India. In both places, science journalists and especially nuclear journalists are rare.

One thing that this Roundtable has confirmed is that nuclear secrecy is a challenge common to a number of countries. In his first essay, Chaudhuri discussed a fear in India that "any nuclear information that India divulged would be used against it by the West." The same sort of attitude exists today in Egypt -- government officials sometimes justify their refusal to provide details about nuclear issues by arguing that "the West will use it against us." Scientists working at sensitive research institutions sometimes do this too.

Alexander Golts noted in his first essay that, because he had questioned Russia's nuclear policies, he had been accused of promoting the interests of the United States. Something similar happens in Egypt: Some scientists affiliated with the government accuse groups that oppose the nuclear program of serving Israel's interests. From their point of view, the only beneficiary of stopping the program would be the state of Israel.

Egypt's revolution has led to greater press freedom, but a lack of transparency continues to characterize the country's nuclear program. With information so restricted, and amid the country's still-unsettled political situation, it is very difficult to ascertain the government's true stance regarding resumption of the nuclear program.