• Reports
  • June 24, 2006
  • 27 minutes read

Open Sesamedia

 The Bush administration and others slam Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya for what they argue is wildly unfair coverage by the two stations of the war in Iraq and U.S. foreign policy in general. But the growing availability and aggressive journalism of such transnational satellite news outfits is increasingly drawing the ire of the Middle East’s authoritarian governments such as that of long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — only for very different reasons.

More than a quarter of Egypt’s 70 million people access the free satellite stations — a percentage media analysts here say can reasonably be expected to triple in the coming half decade. As such, state-run television outfits such as Egypt’s Nile News, once the government’s main propaganda outlet, are being rendered irrelevant by the buffet of alternatives, namely Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and even the U.S. government funded Al Hurra. Those three Arabic language stations — along with English-language outlets such as the BBC and CNN International — are being dished into living rooms from Morocco to the Persian Gulf via satellite. Their availability, coupled with the extensive air-time they give to such developments as the bubbling pro-democracy movement in Cairo, has reduced Egyptian state-TV to “rubbish,” said one middle-class Egyptian man I spoke with in Cairo. “You know the news of your own country from the outside channels,” he said. “It’s like a fact everybody knows.”

Everybody knows. So what will come of old-guard Arab state-run media? Egypt’s Nile News along with its sister-station Nile News International is pumped over satellite just like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the others. But unlike those stations, Nile also remains the only news station broadcast through Egypt’s old “terrestrial” system, watched by the shrinking percentage of people who don’t have satellite dishes. Could the plethora of alternatives on satellite be forcing Nile News to lessen its censorship of local developments, such as Cairo’s recent pro-democracy street rallies and the government’s violent crackdown on reform activists — 184 of which were detained during May and continue to be held?

It’s too early to tell. But there is evidence that some working within the Egyptian Television and Radio Union, the 36,000-employee bureaucracy that controls Nile News, are well aware of their irrelevance in the face of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. They are pushing for reform. For a glimpse at the serious challenges facing Egypt’s state-media, one need look no further than the lobby of the government’s “TV building” in downtown Cairo.

“If We Don’t Change…”

I visited the building a day after arriving in Cairo. The Egyptian embassy in Washington had told me an official there could help me arrange interviews with authorities about the “opening of Arab media.” The most striking feature of the gigantic edifice situated on the bank of the Nile was not so much its sheer size as the number of uniformed men employed on the ground floor — apparently to watch over the vast flow of individuals coming and going. In addition to a half dozen guards sitting behind a large central desk, several monitored metal detectors on either side. Not until I had passed through the detectors and was stopped at a row of turnstiles by a second layer of slightly cleaner-cut looking guards who wished to see my identification, did I become aware of a third group, sitting, nonchalantly smoking cigarettes behind the metal detectors and off to the side.

This is where I was ultimately led to announce my intentions. (On a second trip to the building, I became aware of yet a fourth set of guards — suave, young, black suits, colorful ties — who from their perch in a far corner of the lobby appear to enjoy a higher status than the many other guards, a status suggested also by their fax and telephone access to the thousands of people who actually work inside the building.) The lobby scene offered a microcosm of state-owned media’s problems: Too many employees too closely guarding too many things — buildings, access to officials, and political truths.

When we finally met, the official to whom I had been recommended turned out to be a friendly man who treated me to lunch at the luxurious top-floor restaurant of the TV building. He wrote down the names of those I sought to interview, among them Hala Hashish, the President of Nile News, and agreed to arrange the interviews as soon as possible. I left thinking progress was afoot. It was not until several days had passed with no action that I realized that this official worked within a sort of fifth-layer of guards. When I informed a contact of mine at the American University in Cairo — who later arranged an interview by making a simple call to Hashish’s cellular phone — my contact’s response was simply: “Who? It does not work that way.”

A few days later, when finally I met with Hashish at Nile News headquarters inside the TV building — this time I went straight to the corner of the lobby, where a fax from her office to the important-looking guards served as my ticket to pass — she informed me that within the Egyptian Television and Radio Union’s behemoth universe “there are people who are advocates of change and people who are not.

“People who had gained a lot from the past, they are against this change, but there are people who are very much up for change, because if we don’t change, if we don’t develop, we won’t be in the next generation to come,” she explained.

In her 50s and American-educated, Hashish has spent her career working as a government journalist. She told me that during the past year and a half, Nile News has begun delivering less censored coverage. In fact, she said, “everybody is commenting on Nile News that actually [we’re] returning the audience to Egypt again.” She flatly denied that the station’s opening to previously censored subjects has been the result of pressure created by the presence of the transnational satellite channels. But she conceded that the competition for viewers has gained new urgency. “Everybody’s seeing it; if it’s not on your channel then it will be on other channels with their own perspective, so you’d better show it on your own with your own perspective because nobody would understand your society as you would convey it,” she said.

I asked how Nile News has been handling the growing number of street demonstrations in Cairo, compared with the way they are being covered by stations like Al Jazeera, which has reported that one of its own cameramen was beaten by Egyptian riot police at the largest pro-reform rally (in May). The rally had featured members of Kifaya!, a small group of reform activists, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a technically illegal political party despite its hold on 88 of the 454 seats in Egypt’s lower house of parliament. The two groups joined together to protest the government’s treatment of two senior judges facing disciplinary action for publicly charging fraud in last year’s parliamentary elections. The rally got so out of hand that it attracted not only the international satellite news crews, but also the attention of several major U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times, which on May 11 announced: “Egyptian Forces Beat Back Demonstration for Judges.”

Hashish told me that Nile News covered the demonstrations closely, only from a very careful perspective.

“All the demonstrations of Kifaya … [and the] Muslim Brotherhood were shown on the screen, but the story is not only one sided,” she said. “If you watch Al Jazeera you find it only one sided; you don’t get any shot of any other side because they consider any other side would be governmental. I don’t know why there is the concept that the government side is not true. This is what we’re trying to balance. This loss of confidence that was based through the past years and now building up confidence between the government and the people.”

She said the demonstrations were “shown on our screen; before that, you wouldn’t see anything of it, but our cameras were just there, next to Al Arabiya, next to Al Jazeera, next to CNN, whatever; but we gave the story from our point of view as well.”

Then she added the following: “Actually there is, I think, too much freedom. I mean the freedom of the press is overboard,” she said, stressing that freedom requires journalists to be “mature enough to understand” the events they are covering. “When you keep someone oppressed and then suddenly you give them freedom, usually there is a stage of chaos.”

Our conversation inside Hashish’s spacious, air conditioned office was interrupted repeatedly by callers on her mobile and desk phones — one of whom, much to my amusement, was the official I had first met with at the TV building days earlier. Afterwards, in one of Nile’s bustling newsrooms, I chatted and smoked cigarettes — an activity not only tolerated but expected in Egyptian government buildings — with Shady Shash, a stylish, 33-year-old daytime anchor/reporter for Nile News, who wore sunglasses indoors, explaining that “I always wear shades.” Shash offered his own take on what is occurring within the government-controlled station. “The margin of freedom has been improving in the past two years,” he said. “We can now say lots of things that we couldn’t say before … we now can discuss Egyptian political matters in a free way, we didn’t used to do that before. Of course the margin of freedom is still not that big, but it is so much better than before, so much better.”

Shash stressed that times are highly volatile in Egypt, where, he said — in addition to the legitimate rumblings of a democratic movement — there has been an equal and opposite rise of more radical Islamists. “They control the streets,” he said quietly after our third or fourth cigarette, adding that a noticeably higher percentage of Egyptian women now wear veils in public than did five years ago, and that Cairo’s taxi drivers all play Islamic prayer tapes.

I asked where the government draws the line of journalistic freedom for Nile News. “We can’t do anything that will disturb the security of the Egyptian society,” he said. “We can’t provoke people like some other channels do. [The other channels] do this out of propaganda . . . but they don’t consider the Egyptian society and the sensitivity of this society.”

Still ’Too Little, Too Late’

Such notions may be what prompt proponents of democratic change in Egypt to say Nile News is behind the curve. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, a Cairo-based pro-Democracy organization, observes that after the first two or three street demonstrations in recent months, state-media “felt that they would lose their audience completely if they did not cover it, so they had to cover it, but they still under covered it.”

“It was too little too late,” he said, adding that Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, CNN and BBC have covered the demonstrations from the beginning as breaking international news.

Younger activists in Egypt see Nile reporting as pure lies. Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a 24-year-old pro-democracy activist who remains in jail after being snatched by police during on of the May rallies, recently slammed state media in a message that he managed to smuggled from his jail cell to fellow activist internet bloggers (of which there seem to be a growing number here, although internet access remains a luxury in Egypt, where there are only about a million computers and the illiteracy rate hovers near 50 percent). Abdel-Fattah complained that in jail “our only source of information is state TV and state TV is run by state security officers.”

More seasoned government critics such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has struggled for decades to grow Islamist opposition to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s secular authoritarian rule, openly complain that the government’s media machine is a tool of persecution against them. With dozens of Brotherhood members during recent weeks detained for questioning by the government, Ahmed Azzeddin, a press secretary for the group, says transnational satellite stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya “try to cover what’s actually happening on the ground.” Their coverage “helps the shift toward democracy,” Azzeddin said, adding that his own favorite station is Al Jazeera.

While the brotherhood may feel this way, some in the satellite news game argue that the ongoing lack of uncensored local stations across the Middle East has left a void of information people need most. “Arab media may in fact have had a negative impact upon democratic processes,” Nabil Khatib, the executive editor of Al Arabiya, wrote in a recent editorial that appeared first on the online newsletter Bitterlemons-international.org, and later in the International Herald Tribune.

“The average Arab citizen is deprived of access to information in his or her own country, and is deprived of political participation in light of the absence of elections, the banning of political parties and the lack of other forms of democratic life,” Khatib wrote. “Arab viewers mostly receive news about the Arab-Israeli conflict or the war in Iraq, as well as other regional and international topics. They do not receive information or news about local issues such as the running of affairs, government performance, the handling of public funds or legislative and parliamentary performance.”

Indeed, in Egypt, Nile News, like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and just about everyone else delivered exhaustive coverage of Abu Musab Zarqawi’s recent death in Iraq. But viewers would be hard pressed to find Nile News airing a local exposé examining how it could be that the Muslim Brotherhood can hold the largest opposition bloc in the country’s parliament, while at the same remaining illegal according to those in power.

Still some in the Egyptian government say the same phenomenon is at play with Al Jazeera, owned by the government of Qatar, and Al Arabiya, which is part of the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center; despite the relatively aggressive openness of the two. One government source I spoke with in Egypt, who asked not to be identified, said real news stories about Qatar are off-limits for Al Jazeera and that it is “taboo” for either of the stations to deliver hard-nose reporting about Saudi Arabia.

That said, analysts generally agree the issue of reform for Egypt’s state-run media is particularly vital to the region because Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous, and arguably most powerful, nation. Should media reform move quickly and smoothly here, neighbors such as Syria and Libya may take the cue and begin relaxing the censorship of their own state-media machines.

“It’s Happening Now”

But the issue of state media reform may be moot, as those on the business side of the satellite TV industry suggest state-run entities like Egypt’s Radio and Television Union are simply doomed in the new satellite universe that has taken hold in the Middle East.

Amin Bassiouni, who served as the director of the Radio and Television Union before graduating to the coveted position he now holds as CEO of the Nilesat company, predicts a dim future for government-controlled channels. The company’s two satellites hovering over the Middle East, along with a third owned by a conglomeration of Arab nations, carry the outside news stations along with some 300 other variety, entertainment, sports, Islamic, Christian and international stations.

Access to 300 channels has freed “the will” of the satellite viewer in Egypt and across the Arab world, Bassiouni says, “giving him the chance to see the whole world, and through this he looks at his governmental authorities in a new aspect. They are one among others, instead of being the once source of knowledge,” he said. “All the people working in the mass media in the Arab world are sure now that there is no place to hide any bit of news, because if you hide it, hundreds will declare it before you. Also they are now convinced that they should give all points of view. If you just defend one point of view, others are giving the rest.”

Bassiouni says these things knowing that Nilesat, which he said will recorded $23 million in profits this year — up from $10 million last year — is actually 40-percent owned by the Egyptian government, an irony that suggests the government is actually profiting from the very technological revolution that is stripping its ability to conduct successful television propaganda.

With the number of non-government Arab satellite stations expected to grow in the coming years, Bassiouni believes this media and communications revolution is the Arab world’s manifest destiny. “Do you remember the rush to the West in the United States? It’s something like that,” he said. Furthermore, he has no doubt this revolution will accelerate political reform. “I’m convinced of that. I’m not avoiding it. I’m expecting it.”

As for government run stations like Nile News, Bassiouni predicts there will be fewer and fewer in the years to come. “They are now decreasing. They will be less. It’s not just an expectation; it’s happening now!”

Guy Taylor is working as a freelance journalist in the Middle East through an international reporting award from The Stanley Foundation. His stories have appeared in a variety of U.S. newspapers. He formerly covered the U.S. Supreme Court and national and international assignments for The Washington Times.
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