Private Satellite Channels in Egypt: The Relationship between Ownership and Editorial Policy
Issue 15, Spring 2012
Photo courtesy of Andrew Harrer Source: http://hiwar.dedi.org.eg
Many observers say that the Egyptian media, both state-owned and private, are on the front lines of the crisis Egypt has been going through since the fall of the old regime, because, in spite of repeated demands for restructuring state-owned radio and television, the old status quo is still entrenched. In fact, the revival of the post of information minister in itself and the selection of a minister who is close to the establishment confirms that the mentality for dealing with the state-owned media remains as it was—that is, to make sure that the media owned by the people remains under the control of the regime, whatever the regime might be.
This crisis in the state-owned media, with all its negative effects, is relatively modest compared with the chaos and deliberate anarchy that prevail in the private satellite media, which many people believe is seriously attempting to contain the Egyptian revolution and gradually empty it of content.
It is worth pointing out that it has long been believed that authoritarian regimes sought direct control over the media while democratic systems allowed multiple ownership of the media, but in reality this thesis is no longer uncontested and undeniable. Many analysts believe that the big companies that control media do not, in fact, contribute to the expression of alternative political points of view.
That became clear when U.S. corporations such as General Electric and Westinghouse acquired media institutions. A media scene that appeared to be far from the neutral model came into being and media owners began to have interests in the political process. This is what Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky assert in their book Manufacturing Consent:The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
Similarly, the private media in Latin America have often been closely allied with military dictatorships, a situation not much different from that of Egypt, where satellite stations appeared in 2001 in tandem with the organized rise of Gamal Mubarak and the hereditary succession project, and also in response to American pressures following the events of September 11th. The private satellite stations were thus part of the window dressing of the former regime, and their most important characteristics at that stage were:
- Licenses to set up private satellite channels were the exclusive preserve of a handful of businessmen, most of whom had interests directly linked to the regime which awarded them numerous concessions in their field of business, such that there was no private media outlet whose owners did not have other business activities. Their media interests were always a complementary part of their business empires and served their economic interests.
- The satellite channels were given ‘red lines’ for criticism of the regime and its prominent figures, and also for criticism of political and economic views incompatible with the interests of the businessmen.
- On national issues the attitude of these satellite channels was identical with the regime’s point of view and with the point of view of the major powers and the international institutions that dominate the region politically and economically.
- The satellite channels created a group of ‘stars’—most of whom had experience on entertainment programs and whom many consider to be of modest professional ability—to be the facades for these channels, especially in their talk shows.
- In order to underpin their hegemony over the media, most of the businessmen acquired and managed diversified portfolios that included radio, television, newspapers, magazines, publishing, cinema and music interests. They also had agreements with, and in some cases owned, a limited number of advertising companies that controlled the advertising market of the satellite channels.
If all this represents a small part of the private media structure in Egypt before the revolution—a structure which caused what many consider to have been the incompetence and bias evident in their coverage during the eighteen days of the uprising—then the reality of the private media after the revolution has come to pose a real threat to the revolution and to the future of the whole country. The most important aspects of this threat can be summarized as follows:
First, in spite of the sharp decline in investment in most sectors, investment in satellite television channels has markedly increased. Billions of pounds have been pumped into the sector without expectations of any economic return. A group of businessmen and others who have fled abroad have appeared as owners of new satellite channels, and one of them has said that although he has injected vast amounts of money into his channel it is merely a charity from which he expects no financial return. This confirms suspicions that these channels have a political aim—to steer the revolution and public opinion in a direction that suits businessmen at home and possibly regional and international powers interested in the future of Egypt.
Second, in clear defiance of the feelings of the revolutionaries and the Egyptian people, the satellite channels have embraced media personalities who have been rejected by Egyptians and by the revolution. They have imposed these personalities on viewers through new programs, without even a commercial justification, since even novice businessmen do not expect to sell commodities that have been rejected by the general public. This confirms that we are dealing with a political plan that has nothing to do with media or even with economics.
Third, many of the program presenters on these satellite channels, which have an interest in seeing the current media situation continue, coordinate and work with each other. They do not take up important issues at odds with the interests of the businessmen who own the channels or the advertising agencies that finance them. They do not criticize each other or talk about their relationships with prominent members of the old regime, especially with State Security. They prevent any criticism of themselves in the newspapers by co-opting most of the chief editors and senior journalists by inviting them to appear on their programs regularly and constantly quoting reports published in their newspapers, in exchange for the newspapers publicizing the activities of the broadcasters and preventing criticism. We are now up against a media mafia lobby with which a group of opportunistic journalists share common interests.
This situation demands that we find a way out of the current reality of Egyptian satellite channels, if we really want to create a media system that truly serves the interests of the people, the aspirations of the revolution and the future of Egyptians. This can be done by adopting the following measures:
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 The Arabic version of this column appeared in El Shorouk newspaper on November 28, 2011 and was translated into English for Arab Media & Society by Jonathan Wright. See http://shorouknews.com/columns/view.aspx?cdate=28112011&id=a6f95ba7-bf5e-49d1-8e79-52336d438e51.