Egypt's state media: Obstacles on the road to freedom of speech

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Thursday 4 Aug 2011

The revolution has led to calls by state media employees for its reform, and with key figures who served during the 18-day uprising implicated by lawyers in the murder charges against Hosni Mubarak, the need is pressing

Egypt state TV building
State TV continues to be a target of protesters' anger even after the downfall of Mubarak (Photo: Reuters)

“I heard’em say the revolution won’t be televised,” goes the first line in a rap song inspired by the revolution and named after its famous Twitter hashtag, #jan25. The coverage of the revolution by state media contrasted with that of social media, revealing the stunning degree that state-controlled coverage can really be, well, state-controlled.

State radio and television’s skewed coverage of the 18-day uprising has driven their employees at the headquarters in the Maspero building to condemn state influence over the coverage. After Mubarak was ousted the employees’ reasons to protest evolved to include everything that has been going wrong with the institution. Apparently, they had more reasons than meets the eye.

The “Maspero revolution” started on 8 March, primarily calling for a “cleansing of the media.” The demands entailed making Maspero independent, eradicating the politicising of management, and eliminating managerial corruption within the institution. To those ends, the Maspero protesters called for many of the entity’s leaders to be sacked.

When the second wave of Egypt’s revolution began 8 July, Maspero revolutionaries decided to strengthen their stance by setting up a tent in Tahrir named The Maspero Revolutionaries with rotating shifts so that the tent is manned by at least five people at any given moment.

“How could the same people who managed Maspero before the revolution continue in office after it?” exclaimed Ismail Shaheen, an editor in state TV’s channel 6, “the people currently leading Maspero are managerially and financially corrupt: they cannot possibly lead a phase of reform.”

In the first cabinet reshuffle after Mubarak stepped down, the ministry of information was disbanded. The move was met with basic approval, since a ministry overseeing the media was considered a crucial obstacle on the road to media independence in Egypt, especially state media, from the government’s control.

However, people still felt cautious because there was no contingent restructuring process to align with the dissolution of the ministry. Maspero was, hence, an “entity,” rather than a pillar accountable to an entity - but this entity has no boundaries or management structure.

Weeks later, the top Maspero managers were dismissed, at the demand of the protesters. Osama El-Sheikh, the head of Maspero, was already caught up in a corruption lawsuit, along with former minister of information, Anas El-Fiqi.

Shockingly, El-Sheikh’s replacement, appointed by none other than Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was no better choice: Major General Tarek El-Mahdi.

On two levels these moves were equally alarming: the fact that the military council was the entity that appointed the new head of the Radio and Television Union (Maspero), and the fact that the appointed head is a military officer. Inevitably, this made any good faith gesture towards freeing the media by closing the ministry a complete counterfeit.

Events took another surprising turn when the latest reshuffle, which came during the latest 8 July sit-ins, actually included a minister of information. The justification used was that during Egypt’s transitional phase there are “certain tasks” that can only be performed by an authority, such as a minister.

“Bringing back the ministry is a sort of failure. Why can’t the jurisdiction of the minister be passed on to the [elected] head of the Union? They [The military council] insist on controlling the media and they’re too scared to let us form a syndicate of Maspero employees. State radio and TV are the most far-reaching and, therefore, most influential media in Egypt,” states Ismail, as he follows a satellite channel morning programme on the small TV set and satellite receiver they managed to install inside the Tahrir tent.

The bare essentials: independence

The debate over Maspero reforms tosses between several degrees of restructuring. However, Maspero’s independence from political influences is the priority, considering the nature of the institution’s work.

“First and foremost, authorities need to lay their hands off of the media. The media is an attractive weapon for any authority, so the concept that state media belongs to the people should be upheld” comments Hussein Abdel-Ghany, a well-known media figure and member of the National Coalition for Media Freedom.

“State TV and radio should be dedicated to public service, and they should remain independent from any influence by the ruling political party,” he emphasises.

As far as suggestions for management, Abdel-Ghany suggests: “Maspero’s leadership should take the form of a board of trustees. It should act as the policy planner for the entity, ensure that the broadcasting authority has the freedom to choose its content and that the entity meets professional standards. The Board should act as the buffer zone between Maspero and the authorities, reporting to parliament and not the cabinet.”

Economic factors: Between a rock and a hard place

Apart from the political pieces of the Maspero puzzle, financial and economic ones add a considerable dimension to the issue, which could have substantial consequences on the reform process.

“Maspero is suffering from an over-inflated administrative structure” says Hisham Kassem, a prominent Egyptian media publisher. “However, laying off excess labour in Maspero will result in early retirement of 90 per cent of its 80 thousand employees. The costs of running Maspero are much higher than advertisement income. If Maspero’s government-allocated budget is announced - and sooner or later it will be - a revolution of its own will occur. After the announcement, the people will not accept to continue subsidising Maspero. Subsidies should be cut and Maspero should start operating for profits.”

As alternatives Abdel-Ghany suggests “annual subscriptions could help fund Maspero, or a budget can be agreed upon with the parliament, not the cabinet.”

In a radical transformation of the Maspero structure the critical question remains: What happens to the employees who would be made redundant?

Authorities in Egypt are already facing a tedious wave of class and labour demonstrations. Moreover, there is no way of testing the feasibility of alternative solutions to the proposed mass-layoffs, considering the scale.

“In the process of turning Maspero into an adaptable media entity, all those channels will have to be reduced down to only two official channels, along with one news channel that operates according to international standards,” Hussein Abdel-Ghany comments.

“The rest of the channels could be sold to private entities. They [employees] should be offered either a satisfactory early retirement plan, an offer to stay in the newly privatised channels, or to become shareholders in the channels. Most importantly, any offer should be equitable and employees should be given utmost freedom to choose between offers. As to administrative staff, they can be transferred to other governmental organisations to benefit from their experience.”

Last week it was announced on state radio that in response to employee protests inside the Maspero premises that a new salary system would be announced shortly.

This was quickly cancelled by the current minister, Osama Heikal, when he took office, which prompted protests inside the building.

Regardless of new salary system or not, experts think that the Maspero case should be handled in a much deeper angle.

Uprooting flawed professional standards

Maspero’s professional culture needs particular attention.

After decades of being a governmental institution with an understood mandate to serve Egypt’s 30-year ruling political agenda, the transformation to an independent entity governed only by a professional code of ethics and international media standards will not be quick, nor easy.

“Maspero needs a policy that is based on a vision and it takes political will to achieve that. Being a governmental organisation Maspero has been operating without a sense of competition, which also has to change. Maspero professionals need retraining and linking to international organisations that promote media standards,” Hussein Abdel-Ghany affirms.

Timing dilemma

When asked the devil’s advocate question of whether to wait for Egypt’s transitional phase to settle before putting into effect any large-scale reforms to such a vital institution as the media, Abdel Ghaly exclaimed, emphasising the need for free media during the transitional phase:

“The perception itself of the transitional phase is obscured. It is supposed to be the foundational period in which the bedrock of all major reforms should be established.”

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