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Egypt calls for a media revolution

In the wake of the 18 day uprising, Egyptians begin to call for a public takeover of state media organs considered to be part and parcel of the widely loathed regime

Salma El-Wardani , Monday 21 Feb 2011
Egypt calls for a media revolution
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A split screen shot. The right section shows a square fully packed with protestors, the left one shows two TV presenters. “It has become clear now that protestors are being given $100 and a Kentucky meal every day by certain ‘foreign entities’ serving wicked agendas”, said one of the presenters.

Cut to: “We have to pay our respects to the revolution and to its youth who are opting for real change”, said the very same news anchor just two days before ex-president Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power.

A sudden shift in the state media’s tone -- from accusing protestors of treason to applauding their patriotism – took place almost overnight when it became clear that Mubarak could no longer cling onto power and the regime would soon begin to cave-in.

Immediately after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, state television began congratulating the Egyptian people “for their pure great revolution, led by the best of the Egyptian youth”. The next day MENA state agency issued a statement assuring the people that “Egyptian TV will be honest in carrying its message” and since it “is owned by the people of Egypt [it] will be in their service.”

The Egyptian Revolution removed any of the state media’s remaining credibility and has insured that state media institutions must themselves undergo revolutionary changes.  

 “I had the feeling that I was betraying my audience and misleading the public’ said Shahira Amin, an ex-deputy head of Egyptian state-run Nile TV and one of its senior anchors, before she quit on 3 February.

“This time I couldn’t handle it anymore”, said Amin, adding that “History was being made in my country and I couldn’t be part of it because they refused to give me a camera to do interviews with revolutionaries. I didn’t think twice. I just quit, and took to the street.”

The ex-Nile TV anchor had been employed by state TV for 22 years, covering official conferences and summits. She spoke of numerous transgressions within the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU).

“Corruption, nepotism, favouritism and a waste of public money are pervasive inside Maspero. You can see signs of them everywhere”, she remembers. “The whole system should be changed.”

Abolishing the ministry of information

“I believe the reform mission in the case of Maspero is no easy job,” says Ayman El-Sayyad an Egyptian media expert and editor-in-chief of Weghat Nazar Magazine, a leading intellectual affairs and book review monthly.

Reform for El-Sayyad is a tall order due to Maspero’s “long history in which people came to view television as government’s political propaganda organ that implemented its message through insidious brainwashing programmes.”

The first Egyptian television broadcast – the first in the Middle East and Africa – took place on 21 July 1960. According to ERTU’s official Facebook group, the first transmission on Egyptian TV broadcast the opening of Parliament marked with an address by president Gamal Abdel Nasser, followed by the national anthem, a news bulletin and finally concluding with Quranic recitation.

Since the first historic broadcast, Egyptian television has always been regarded as the voice of the Egyptian government and its ruling political party, with the ERTU and television sector chairmen appointed by the minister of information. As a result local and satellite channels as well as specialist Nile channels are under direct government supervision, operation and ownership.

A report by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) launched September 2005, said that media coverage has so far been biased in favour of the then-incumbent Mubarak, and that both state channels and independent channels devoted more time to cover his campaign, leaving the other nine candidates with minimal exposure.

“There is an immediate need to abolish the ministry of information”, says El-Sayyad. “If you’re seeking even a minimal level of media independence, you cannot have such a ministry that is primarily driven by the idea of controlling public opinion.”

A BBC style media

The next step, El-Sayyad believes, is to begin publicly funding the ERTU through a licensing fee.

“I believe it’s time to have a BBC-style media, funded by a public licensing fee,” he stated, adding, “At that point, Egyptian households will be the true owners of public media.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation has been supported since 1922 by an annual television licence fee charged to all United Kingdom households, companies and organisations in order to receive any television transmission, even via internet. Today, the levy generates $3.7 billion a year which funds eight national television channels, five national radio networks and an assortment of local broadcast and internet services in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

During the 2003 Iraqi War, it became obvious that the licence fee was a success, protecting the British media apparatus from government censorship and hegemony. The result was free, unbiased, full-time coverage on Iraq by the BBC.

Trouble within the establishment

A similar crisis is underway within the heart of Egypt’s official state newspaper, Al-Ahram. For the past three weeks, journalists within Al-Ahram have been rebelling against a management they consider to be in bed with the Mubarak regime.

The state run paper, founded in 1875 and located in downtown Cairo, has recently witnessed a series of protests against Editor-in-Chief Osama Saraya by journalists demanding a new board of directors and a new editorial council in the interim until democratic elections can be held for both bodies.

During an interview with the BBC, Saraya responded angrily to questions about calls for him to resign. "You are inciting against me. Is that what you're trying to do?" he replied vehemently. "I reject incitement from the BBC or any Arab or foreign channel."

In language reminiscent of Mubarak's final television appearances, Saraya accused the interviewer of trying to undermine the stability of Al-Ahram.

On Saturday, 19 February, former Akhbar Al-Youm chairman Mohamed Ahdy Fadly was arrested over allegations of corruption and waste of public money.

Journalists at Al-Ahram have levelled similar allegations against Saraya. The army has deployed soldiers inside Al-Ahram’s main building, both to prevent him from destroying documents that might condemn him if he is to be investigated, and also to protect him from angry reporters, sources told Ahram Online.

Changing the legal framework

Widely regarded as the mouthpiece of the regime, the Al-Ahram underwent a dramatic 180 degree shift in tone, just two days before Mubarak’s resignation, when it published an editorial by Editor-in-Chief Saraya praising the young revolutionaries and their struggle for change.

 “The 180 degree turn we’ve seen in state television and newspapers is no surprise coming from an apparatus that has been for years fully controlled by the state”, said Yehia Qalash, a leading journalist and a media activist. “If we’re talking about revolution in each and every institution, then you shouldn’t stop at changing the leadership, you must change the laws.”

Qalash has worked as an independent journalist since 2008 after quitting his post as general secretary of the press syndicate due to corruption charges. Following his departure, he has been an advocate for press freedoms calling for an independent press syndicate.

“This independence can only be gained by a total change in the legal framework”, Qalash told Ahram Online. “The imprints law as well as press sovereignty law needs to be fully replaced, if we’re to talk about real democratic change.”

According to imprints law no 20/1936, the cabinet may ban any publication -- issued abroad -- from being sold and/or published inside the state. Furthermore article 10 of the law grants the minister of interior the right to ban many newspapers published abroad from entering Egypt.

Also, according to press sovereignty law no 96/1996, the supreme press council – formed and controlled by the government – is the only authority with the power to issue newspaper licences, thereby censoring journalists and press institutions.

 “How can you have press freedoms if two government-owned councils have the upper hand?” asks Gamal Fahmy, a member of the press syndicate board and a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Kefaya opposition movement.

“The state, driven by a corrupt dictatorship, has for too long exploited state media as a tool for propaganda much like the Nazi manipulation of public opinion through total media control,” adds Fahmy who in March 1999 was taken into custody by police and brought to Torah Mazra prison to begin serving a six-month sentence for allegedly libelling Egyptian writer Tharwat Abaza.

After a long trial, the Court of Cassation on 30 August overturned the lower court's conviction, citing procedural errors. The court ordered the immediate release of journalist, but ruled that Fahmy be retried.

“In a country where journalists are being terrorised and assaulted, you can never speak of press freedoms claimed by the ex-regime,” adds Fahmy.

A co-opted opposition

For Fahmy, state media isn’t the only biased media in Egypt. “You cannot speak of an ‘independent unbiased media’ if they are controlled by a few businessmen with strong ties to the regime and who have accumulated their wealth by maintain this relationship,” notes Fahmy.

“You can never depend on opposition media, as it reflects special interests.”

Privately-owned media has also been lambasted due to its coverage of the revolution which saw stations’ attempt to strike a balance between the need to cover events on the ground and the need to keep some businessmen as well as political figures untouched.

A recent phone conversation spread via YouTube and Facebook two days ago – purported to be between the editor-in-chief of a weekly private paper and one of the paper’s shareholders – exposed the paper which presents itself as an opposition publication conspiring to misguide public opinion. The two parties involved spoke of a deal to increase the popularity of high-ranking officials within the NDP including Gamal Mubarak, the ex-president’s son, and some other powerful businessmen.

Fahmy believes that state media should be the perfect forum for patriotic unbiased journalism that only reflects the ‘public interest’.

Print media ownership

Based on the same logic, El-Sayyad believes there should be a change in the very basic system of administration.

“If you want to empower journalists, then they should own the institutions they work in,” he asserted, adding, “I think the journalists should own shares in their newspapers.”

In this manner, El-Sayyad believes reporters will be both independent from the paper’s management and at the same time keen to promote and enhance content, thus “working truly for the public interest”.

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David Bakhoum
21-02-2011 10:35am
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Reporters and Media
The Media has to be objective and unbiassed. Neutral and focussed on the future of Egypt.
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