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The constitution will save our media

The Egyptian media has reached a point of explosion. The state must intervene to solve the crisis, not through censorship, but through organisation based on social dialogue and legislation

Mohamed Shuman , Thursday 28 May 2015
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Since January 2011 the Egyptian media has been subject to accelerated and troubled shifts. The space here would not be enough to fully outline the situation of the media during the years of the revolution. However, we can summarise the six main shifts as follows:

1. The state under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) established the freedom to publish newspapers and launch satellite channels without any vision or planning and based on old laws and legislative frameworks that could not accommodate the needs of the post-revolution moment with the increase in numbers of newspapers and channels.

In addition, there is the widespread use of social media and new forms of media. This situation led to a setback in levels of professionalism and a noticeable increase in politicisation, where media were used as tools for political conflict and to divide influence between the state and businessmen and among businessmen themselves. Those businessmen poured enormous sums into financing newspapers and satellite channels that were losing enterprises but necessary as tools for defending their interests against changing political authorities, starting with SCAF and then the Muslim Brotherhood, the transitional president and finally President El-Sisi.

2. The decline of state TV to the benefit of private satellite channels, which have become the most widespread and most watched among Egyptians. Consequently, those channels seized the lion's share in advertisements. This situation, however, bore its consequences where private channels have become the preserve of advertising agencies, which interfere in administration, editorial policy, and choice of form and content. Moreover, many private channels have fallen into the trap of unprofessional familial administration, leading to decreasing performance.

3. A decrease in financing private channels and newspapers due to the decline in businessmen's needs for such channels and newspapers. This took place when owners grew aware that the president refuses attempts at political and media extortion. Hence, a decrease in personnel and development in most channels and newspapers, with the laying off of hundreds of technicians and media men in a way unbefitting and without fair compensation, especially in the absence of a media syndicate that defends the rights of those working in radio and TV or provide them with unemployment benefits.

4. The decline in political returns for investment in private media and the decline in financing drove private channels to minimise their dosages of politics to the benefit of entertainment shows, cookery and sports programmes, and Indian series. It is an approach that can raise advertisement earnings as well as lessen the probability of a clash with the new regime, which does not care much for politics and partisan debate but focuses on terrorism and mega projects. I believe private media owners perceived this and complied partially. Many channels steered clear of hot political issues and several critical programmes were cancelled. However, the owners of some those channels were not keen to present artistic content or focus on raising the awareness of citizens on how to combat terrorism or on the importance of developmental enterprises. Thus, there is a general sense of discontent with the private media's performance.

5. The general sense of discontent with private media performance has extended to state TV and radio channels, for their inability to present developmental programmes in attractive forms and inability to develop their performance and regain audience numbers to levels achieved before the revolution. The decline occurred due to a number of reasons; the most important of which is the state of tension and mystery that is confusing those working in Maspero (the state radio and TV building) concerning the plans and intentions of those charged with restructuring the state media. Will reform lead to a professional, independent public service media? Or will the state media return to being a follower of the authorities, thus losing its credibility among audiences? Will restructuring plans affect the financial and professional rights of those working in Maspero? All these questions and others are not answered because of the absence of social dialogue, and dialogue between those working in Maspero, regarding the restructuring whose importance is indisputable. Disagreement abounds on the vision, objectives and tools of implementation of reform.  

6. Decreasing financial support allocated to private media and the continuity of the state's backing of national newspapers and the radio and TV union have driven the media to compete over the advertisement pie and comply with the pressures and demands of the big four advertisement agencies. Legal regulations must be drawn up for these companies that monopolise advertisements in more than one newspaper. A feverish and unhealthy competition has ensued with the aim of raising viewing rates and readership at the expense of content, through covering scandalous and sexual topics, one-upmanship and undisciplined conjecture and interpretation in matters of religion. Despite the fact that the state media was mostly distant from this lowest denominator competition, it was incapable of securing the basic financial requirements to enable it to develop and be ready for competition with the private media, and that of Arab and foreign countries that focus on the Egyptian audience.

These shifts summarise the troubled media scene that is close to breaking point and may lead to the collapse of the media system, whether technically, in programming, in ethics and politics, or the collapse of the public's trust in most of what is presented to it. Thus, there must be swift action for reorganising the Egyptian media and developing its performance through issuing laws that activate the relevant three articles of the constitution, concerning the establishment of the Supreme Council for the Regulation of Media and two additional bodies — one for the press and the other for radio and TV — provided that there are safeguards for the independence of the three organisations financially and politically. We should not wait for the next parliament to start holding its sessions in order to issue these laws, which we are in a dire need of some 16 months of the constitution was issued and amid media chaos and nonsense that does not fit the national stage we are living right now. My call is that the president take the initiative and issues these laws in light of the efforts of the Committee of 50, which media men had formed, and that parliament will revise them in its first session.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).

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