Egypt ups the pressure on satellite TV programming

Egypt ups the pressure on satellite TV programming

Dishes sprout like mushrooms from the roofs of seemingly every building here, a testament to the wild popularity of satellite television among Egypt”s 76 million people.

Perhaps with that in mind, the government clamped down on satellite providers soon after the 22-member Arab League approved restrictive guidelines in February for satellite channels, which most critics say provide an official stamp of approval to censorship already in place.

“The Internet and satellite stations have become tools for people seeking and supporting democracy in the Arab world,” said Gamal Eid, director of the Cairo nongovernmental organization Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. “The governments are trying to filter the information from the outside that gets in to their people, and they are trying to filter what their people can say to the outside world. They are trying to build a wall around the Arab people.”

In April, the state-owned satellite NileSat dropped Al-Hiwar, a London-based Egyptian station seen as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country”s main opposition group in Parliament.

In May, police raided the offices of the nation”s largest independent satellite broadcasting firm, the Cairo News Co., confiscating its transmission equipment.

Footage of protesters

Nader Gohar, director of Cairo News, says the government shut his company for showing footage of protesters stomping on billboard-size portraits of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during two days of rioting in April over high food prices in the city of Mahalla. The 79-year-old Mubarak has been in power for 27 years.

The footage was broadcast by Al-Jazeera, whose correspondents sent the images directly to Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar from their satellite phones. Al-Jazeera is a major client of Cairo News, which films and transmits news but does not produce content.

“The government doesn”t like what Al-Jazeera says in their broadcasts, but at the same time it won”t shut down their office,” said Gohar. “They bother people like me because I give Jazeera the technical facilities they need to broadcast. It is an indirect way of limiting Al-Jazeera”s work.”

Egyptian Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud has charged Cairo News Co. with violation of the 1960 Transmission Law, which gives the state-run Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) the sole right to transmit television signals out of the country. Experts say the law has yet to be changed despite the advent of satellites and the Internet. Gohar says that leaves him and other satellite providers vulnerable to prosecution for operating without a license.

ERTU “has never finished the new regulations, so all the transmission equipment in Egypt is working without a license,” said Gohar. “If you make a mistake the government will punish you for not having a license, but if you don”t make any problems for them then you will be OK.”

Despite numerous requests, ERTU Director Gen. Ahmed Anis and government officials in the State Information Service and prosecutor general”s office refused to comment for this report.

Indirect attack on Al-Jazeera

Hussein Abdel Ghany, Cairo bureau chief for Al-Jazeera, agrees that Cairo News Co. is being punished for its relationship with his network, and says that attacking satellite service providers is “a sneaky, indirect” way to attack freedom of the press.

“We rely on our cooperation with service providers, especially for covering live events,” said Ghany. “They are our only way to work here. If the government starts to close down service providers, or harass them to stop cooperating with independent media like Al-Jazeera, the BBC or the Associated Press, then this is something that the international community and human rights groups that focus on freedom of speech should be paying attention to.”

To be sure, the Egyptian media are freer than most in the Arab world, which is dominated by authoritarian regimes. In recent years, numerous independent newspapers and television channels have flourished in Egypt since a political opening during the 2005 presidential election.

“The media in Egypt took two steps forward during the 2005 elections, and since then it has taken at least one step back, if not two,” said Lawrence Pintak, director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at American University in Cairo.

More recently, editors and journalists at independent newspapers have been imprisoned for criticizing Mubarak”s ruling party and speculating about the president”s health.

In March, newspaper Editor Ibrahim Eissa received six months in jail for writing in his publication, Al Destour, about the rumors that Mubarak had died. He has since been released on bail while government attorneys appeal for a harsher sentence.

Analysts say the Arab League”s new package of guidelines for satellite broadcasters came at the instigation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which own, respectively, the region”s two main satellite companies, NileSat and ArabSat. The document urges television stations to “uphold the supreme interests of the Arab countries” and warns them “not to insult their leaders or national and religious symbols” or “insult social peace and national unity.”

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, not only restricts press freedoms but bans political parties, civil rights groups and public gatherings. Last month, Fouad al-Farhan, the nation”s most popular blogger, was released after serving four months in prison without charge. His blog has criticized corruption and advocated political reform.

Protecting Arab youth

The document”s author, Egyptian Hussein Amin, says the satellite charter is a long overdue regulation in an industry with few rules. He argues the new regulations will protect Arab youth from pornography and “hate campaigns” by terrorist groups. He compares the charter to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

“It was obvious that some channels were really designed just to implement hate campaigns against Christians in general and Americans in particular,” he said.

Amin points to Al Zawra, a satellite channel operated by Sunni militants in Iraq that was pulled from both NileSat and ArabSat last year. The network had broadcast a steady diet of U.S. air strikes in Iraq with a soundtrack of Quranic recitation.

Amin, who is chairman of the journalism department at American University and a member of the ruling party, says his critics do not understand “the difference between freedom and responsible freedom.”

“People need to remember that this is not the United States or Europe,” he said. “This is still authoritarianism. The government can ban any network they want if it is giving them a hard time. They can ban it. They are in control.”

E-mail Liam Stack at [email protected].