INTERVIEW: Former information minister Dorreya Sharafeddin talks about Egyptian media's doldrums

Amira Elhamy , Monday 20 Aug 2018

The former minister believes Egypt's public and state media is facing many problems, but still has a vital role to play in informing citizens

Dorreya Sharafeddin
Former minister of information Dorreya Sharafeddin

Dorreya Sharafeddin was Egypt’s first female information minister, a post she held in the interim government formed in the summer of 2013 following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi.

For three decades Sharafeddin anchored “Nadi Al-Cinema” (Cinema Club), a weekly cultural programme that offered local viewers a window on the best foreign films, accompanied by critical analysis.

Before her cabinet appointment Sharafeddin was director of Egypt’s Censorship Office, the head of the Satellite Channels Department at Egyptian Radio and TV and a deputy to the Minister of Information.

She is the author of two books, Politics and Cinema in the Fifties, and Politics and Cinema in Egypt.

How do you evaluate the challenges facing the media in Egypt?

Egypt has passed through very critical phases since the 25 January 2011 Revolution. Before the revolution the national media was the main source of information and news for many Egyptians. Now the situation is completely different.

Private and international channels are vigorously competing with the national media.

The situation Egypt’s national media is facing is a consequence of the competitive environment created by satellite channels and the availability of multiple sources of information globally.

This has put pressure on the national media to adopt advanced media techniques and forced it to maintain an ongoing flow of information delivered to the Egyptian viewer with a high level of credibility.

The national media needs to be the first and main reference for Egyptian citizens but when we compare Egyptian channels to similar channels worldwide we find we have fallen behind. Problems have accumulated over many years.

Lack of trust in the media can have a corrosive effect on society. Do you think the Egyptian media is facing a credibility problem?

Let me differentiate between private and national media. The national media still enjoys a high level of credibility, the private media less so.

Credibility is something that develops over time between the viewer and the media channel.

Viewers choose to follow a specific channel based on their perception of the channel’s credibility though you would be hard pressed to find a channel, whether government or private, that is perceived as 100 per cent credible.

The media plays a crucial role in serving society and it also serves the government as it attempts to present a correct image of society. It works to uncover the problems that face society and tries to find solutions. The whole process is really supposed to serve the widest interests of society as a whole.

Any trust issues between a specific media channel and the viewer is a result of wrong practices being followed.

The national Egyptian media has been for years the main provider of information and news for Egyptian viewers but today it faces fierce competition. The problem is one of poor quality rather than an issue of trust.

How would you evaluate the talk shows aired on private satellite channels in Egypt?

I am totally against talk shows where the anchor addresses the viewer as if he/she is an expert on every subject under the sun. In the end, what anchors say are simply their own opinions, or else a reflection of the agenda of the channel that hired the anchor. This is unprofessional, and also very boring.

The idea of a daily talk show with the same presenters discussing current issues and using propaganda techniques is not very appealing in my opinion.

What tends to happen is that important, pressing issues are presented on daily talk shows as infotainment style. It is not a phenomenon you find anywhere else.

Television is a centralised system of storytelling and it cultivates from infancy the very predispositions that are supposed to be acquired from other primary sources. Do you think that in Egypt the high level of illiteracy is the main reason behind the heavy dependency on television as the main information, news and entertainment provider?

Illiteracy rates are one reason. But they are compounded by a lack of cultural diversity in our society, by pressures on time and by the increased costs of activities such as going to the theatre, attending concerts and going to the cinema.

Social media has grown rapidly as an information provider. What are its pros and cons?

Social media makes one more aware of what is happening internationally. When you are able to compare the status of your own country to other countries it clarifies where we stand and how advanced we are.

The presence of multiple sources of information is generally a beneficial thing though you need to take into account the way social media has facilitated the rapid spread or rumours.

Every invention has the potential for good and bad and it really depends on how we use it.

For example, if we talk about media usage and the problem of terrorism we will find that social media can be used to spread awareness about the problem; at the same time, the medium can be used as a tool to brainwash young people into committing terrorist attacks.

How do you evaluate the film industry?

Some Egyptian films are good, others are not. And I don’t think Egypt is making enough films at the moment.

Television drama — soap operas — faces a chronic problem. Almost all productions are aired during the holy month of Ramadan which does not make sense. It means good work might not find its way to the viewer or might not get the audience it deserves because during that one month the competition is intense.

Do you think that there is a lack of well written movie scenarios? And what is your opinion of those dramas that concentrate only on the darkest side of Egyptian society?

The film industry is facing both a production crisis and a lack of well written scenarios. In the past, young directors like Shadi Abdel-Salam, Hussein Kamal and Ashraf Fahmi received government support. We need to instigate a system where drama and film production can be supported.

As for the kinds of drama commonly described as “reflecting the real Egyptian society”, it seems to me to focus exclusively on the ugly.

Every society has its good and bad sides. Drama should not only focus only on the ugly side. Using nothing but bad words and only showing improper behaviour is unacceptable.

Black and white movies are still watched and favoured by many viewers for a reason — they show things that appeal to the viewer.

If we examine why Turkish soap operas have such a large audience in Egypt, despite being poorly written, we will find it is because they show what appeals to the eyes of the viewer, beautiful scenery, well dressed ladies and beautiful nature.

What types of programmes are missing from our television screens?

Cultural programmes have almost ceased to exist on local channels. We do not have proper music programmes or programmes related to theatre, poetry, history or even cinema.

Television should host programmes that talk about recently published books for example, a blockbuster movie or a successful play.

In the past radio and television used to carefully monitor the time allocated to different types of programmes and this would be reviewed every three months.

Religious programmes would be allocated a percentage of air time, cultural programmes, light entertainment and so forth. The idea was to present views and listeners with a balanced menu.

Today, most broadcast time is given over to religious and cookery programmes. And when it comes to the former, the majority of them are related to fatwas, which should not be the case.

There needs to be a much wider range of items broadcast. There should be programmes for women, and for children. Cultural and entertainment programmes should be broadcast alongside religious programmes.

What advice would you give to media professionals working in Egypt?

Work hard to make the national media number one. It must be the main and the first information provider for the Egyptian viewer. Presenting a variety of viewpoints is also crucial, even if some of them oppose decisions taken by the government.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Media doldrums 

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