It is impossible to visit Video Cairo Sat during the war on Iraq without staring at the news desk. Hooked to his computer, the news desk coordinator enters the latest changes to the booking schedule while answering phone calls, receiving faxes, and printing out emails coming from different television channels all over the world that want to "book the bird."
Founded in 1984, Video Cairo as it is generally known is the largest privately owned media service organization in Egypt.
According to the company website, Video Cairo leases two space segments on Nilesat for satellite feeds and provides a service ranging from virtual studios to live feeds that conform to international standards of TV broadcasting.
Under the new war conditions, Video Cairo with its two essential offices in Baghdad and Cairo is faced with a tremendous load of daily work.
Muhammad Gohar, the CEO of Video Cairo, starts his day at 6 a.m. by watching the news to get updated on the latest war conditions under which his crew in Baghdad is working. "I start by worrying about my crew in Baghdad before I even check the signal of our satellite," said Gohar.
In Baghdad, the company is operating an office with one Satellite News Gathering facility (SNG) that can carry up to three paths which means that the office can transmit three different feeds to three different channels at the same time at different frequencies. This office has two cameramen, one technician, and one engineer, who are all Egyptians.
Video Cairo is competing with Reuters, Associated Press (AP), and the Turkish News Agency to provide news service from the Iraqi battlefield. However, according to Gohar, the real competition took place before the war, when each company was trying to build up mutual trust with the two parties to the conflict. "Gaining the Iraqis' confidence to let me work there was one major thing I was building up all last year," said Gohar, explaining that three factors helped him in approaching the Iraqis.
First, the company had to integrate Iraqis into its work. During its coverage of the Iraq-Iran war and the second Gulf war, the company trained Iraqis either in Baghdad or Cairo to be part of the operation. "So by accepting Iraqi elements in our operation, they know that you are working with and not against them," said Gohar, adding that their Egyptian crew in Baghdad is now supported by four Iraqis.
Secondly, the company has communicated to the Iraqi people the atmosphere of the Egyptian street vis-a-vis the Iraqi issue throughout the last year by sending feeds to Iraq TV for free. Meanwhile, the company has helped Iraq TV in feeding pictures and news stories to Egyptian television from Iraq. "Iraqis wanted to maintain a news link between Egyptians and Iraqis," explained Gohar.
As for the company's relationships with Americans, it was easy to gain the latter's trust since the company has been serving Americans in the field of news service for the last thirty years, said Gohar. "There is no hustle to convince Americans that you are giving them what they want," added Gohar, explaining that Americans only care about the feed and the news.
Once the war started, cooperation between different news service companies has replaced competition, said Gohar. "We do not really compete; we cooperate with anybody who is staying there." Although they have their own transmission stations, AP and Reuters sometimes rely on Video Cairo for transmission especially when they need different live positions or when they are forced to stop their service due to heavy bombing, said Gohar.
Despite all the efforts exerted by the company to guarantee clients instantaneous and highly professional service, it still faces some obstacles due to the war. The continuous bombardment comes at the top of these obstacles. "We work under very harsh conditions because we always fear that the place where we stand can be hit at any time," said Muhammad Uda, the head of the engineering department.
According to Ibrahim Mourad, a news desk coordinator, communication between Cairo and Baghdad that takes place through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) satellite is another obstacle. "Sometimes the satellite network is so loaded with phone calls that we can not reach our crew there (Baghdad)," said Mourad, explaining that the absence of mobile phones in Iraq limits the possibilities of communication.
To lessen the burden on the crew in Baghdad, the company has declined to accept new clients since the outbreak of the war. "We stopped taking new booking reservation from Baghdad when shot one started in the war," said Gohar. The company started to make deals with certain clients two months before the war got started and it is now restricting its service to these clients only. "We want to work according to the atmosphere of life and death there so I do not want to pressure the crew too much," said Gohar.
The company is serving many Arab, European, and Asian television channels in both Cairo and Baghdad. Among these clients, they have MBC, Al Arabiya, LBC, Al Manar, Abu Dhabi, Oman TV, Saudi TV, New TV, Sharjah TV, CBC, DW, ZDF, ARD, RAI 1, RAI 2, RAI 3, LA7, Fuji TV, NHK, France 2, TF1, TVE, Alter, Mega, Reuters, and AP.
As for Video Cairo's office here in Cairo, it has been loaded with a huge number of booking orders for its studios since day one of the war. According to the cameraman Muhammad Morsi, the work load on the company's three studios has been doubled. The main studio overlooking the Nile is used to transmit live Q&A between correspondents reporting Egyptian reactions to the war in Cairo and anchors in the channels' headquarters overseas. As for other studios, they are basically used for guests analyzing and commenting on war events.
On a Friday afternoon right after the prayers, the office was overwhelmed with Arab and European correspondents who came either to report live or to feed to their channels the updates on the Egyptian reaction to the war.
For example, the correspondent and producer of German government-owned channel ARD came to the main studio for a live Q&A about peaceful anti-war demonstrations that took place in al-Azhar Mosque right after the prayers. While Morsi adjusts the camera position and fixes the lighting equipment, the correspondent receives instructions from the channel's headquarters in Munich through her earpiece. "Usually, I do not go live in ordinary times but since the beginning of the war we have three live transmissions a day," said Andrea Bahner, ARD correspondent in Cairo.
In the next-door studio, another crew is shooting and feeding a two-hour live interview with a strategic analyst for Abu Dhabi T.V.
The BBC's Arabic radio service was another company that was fortunate enough to complete its move to Video Cairo - provided premises in time for the crisis.
Meanwhile, we can see through the curtain separating the main studio from the reception, the MBC correspondent running very quickly to the master control room to feed his news spot on reactions to the war from Cairo.
Shortly after, Muhammed Fhami, senior producer for Reuters TV, came in to edit and feed his news spot on the Azhar demonstration. In normal situations, Reuters is used to having 15 to 20 feeds per month from Egypt but since the outbreak of the war, Cairo's office has to send one feed per day from Cairo through Video Cairo, said Fahmi.
Once the war started, Video Cairo had to increase the number of its live positions to satisfy all its clients. Prior to the war, they relied only on one live position from the main studio but afterwards they installed two back-up positions, one of which overlooks Cornish al-Nil Street. They can also have up to two live positions at the Arab League depending on the event and the number of reporters they are serving simultaneously. Additionally, they have another live position at the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs.
To put up with the new load of work, the number of working hours has increased. According to Gohar, working hours last normally from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., but since the war broke out they have had to work all day. Consequently, the personnel have been doubled in all shifts. Additionally, the news desk now has three shifts compared to two prior to the war in order to cope with the increasing booking orders. "Usually, we have to order the booking at least a day ahead and even after the war we did not face any problems with reservations," Mahmoud Bakry, the correspondent of Al Manar TV, who is used to rely on Video Cairo for the camera crew, editing, and feeding processes.
Apart from the news gathering service offered by the company, Video Cairo collaborates with Arab and European channels on productions of its own. According to Morsi, the company sometimes seeks to present the news in a new, artistic way that differs from the sensational broadcast style adopted by some Arab channels. For example, Video Cairo in cooperation with Swiss TV produced a three-minute TV interview with the Egyptian actress Yusra about her movie Al Assefa (The Storm). Yusra plays the role of a mother whose two sons, one belonging to the Iraqi army, the other to that of the Coalition, have to fight each other during Gulf War III.
Finally, Gohar believes that his company is managing to cope with this huge amount of work both in Cairo and in Baghdad thanks to his expertise in covering wars. "I have covered wars more than I have covered peace. I am used to it," said Gohar, listing the wars he has covered in Asia, Africa and Europe since he started his news career 30 years ago.