Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
27 May - 2 June 1999
Issue No. 431
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

 
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Too hot to handle

By Amira Howeidy

"Good evening; today's topic is important and sensitive." This is how TV celebrity Emadeddin Adib usually begins his live show On The Air every night on the privately-owned Orbit satellite channel. In a region which has known only state-controlled media for the past 40 years, a live show broadcast from a private channel is in itself an achievement. The daily show discusses controversial issues, such as democracy in the Arab world and Islamic militancy. Interviews are aired live from Cairo, set against a studio background of the Nile at night.

Hala Sarhan, dubbed the Arab world's Oprah Winfrey, has made live TV talk shows as popular as soap operas. She too attacks taboos, frequently shocking her audience and triggering a heated debate on almost each show. Homosexuality, premarital sex and polygamy are among her pet topics, which she discusses freely with her audience. Sarhan's TV talk show, Ya Hala, produced by the private Arab ART channel, is also broadcast from Cairo.

Ironically, perhaps, the staff on most "daring" shows are Egyptian. Many of the shows are broadcast from Cairo or 6 October City, which has come to symbolise Egypt's determination to carve out a place for itself on the Arab satellite broadcasting map.

The launching of Egypt's, and the region's, first satellite last year, during the 15th celebrations of Media Day, is an eloquent manifestation of this determination. To Egyptian Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif, NileSat marked Egypt's "entry into the age of space technology as a pioneer state that seeks to affirm its Arab identity." Using the digital compression system, the LE158 million satellite is equipped to carry up to 84 TV channels and 400 radio stations. The Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) has already launched seven channels free of charge on NileSat, specialised in education, culture, sports, family and children, news, entertainment and drama.

Egypt's radio channels will also be broadcast from NileSat, starting this Media Day. Another satellite, NileSat 102, is to be launched very soon, officials say.

With so much going on, and so much money being spent, the Egyptian government seems to be establishing itself firmly as the region's media pioneer. But the message it is conveying is not always in tune with this desire to innovate. If icons are frequently smashed live from Cairo, this is done via Arab-owned, not Egyptian, satellite channels and networks.

Private TV channels are still an unacceptable option, and attempts to establish them have been thwarted repeatedly. According to the ERTU law, the Egyptian state is the sole authority allowed to set up and broadcast TV or radio channels in the country. Foreign-licensed TV or radio channels may hire air time and transmit their programmes from here, but Egypt cannot be the headquarters of local or foreign private-sector TV channels.

But as the private sector continues to play an increasingly influential role, many businessmen are arguing vehemently that it is high time for the introduction of private TV channels.

"It is essential -- and is happening anyway," argues Amr Hegazi, a businessman who has spent the past two months working on obtaining permission to open a private TV channel. Egypt, he says, "has opened up already, and it's difficult to continue resisting the existence of the private sector in the media." Acknowledging the fact that the ERTU law prohibits privately-owned media, Hegazi says he obtained a licence to establish a production company through the Companies Law. With this licence, he says, he can get permission to launch a TV channel. Says Hegazi: "I'm obviously a businessman with no political orientations. I don't see why my application should be rejected." NileSat, he argues, will need to cover its expenses, and authorities will eventually become more flexible in their stance regarding privately-owned media.

Even the most influential businessmen, however, find such optimism unrealistic, and are turning their efforts elsewhere. Ahmed Bahgat, head of the Ahmed Bahgat Group, a corporation that manufactures electronics and runs Dreamland, an amusement park in 6 October City, is a case in point. "We have come to realise that the authorities here are simply not interested in our proposal to establish a private channel," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "This is why we decided to operate and broadcast from abroad." Bahgat's application was rejected "verbally" by Information Ministry officials.

The reason he insists on establishing a private channel is simple. "We, the private sector, need to make ourselves heard and discuss the issues which the state-owned media might not be able to for obvious reasons," he explains. Moreover, what is broadcast is "rather poor quality". "The media is progressing everywhere in the world except here. We are really lagging behind," opines Bahgat. But the practice of obtaining foreign licences has always been the option chosen by the opposition, or by those who have no dealings with the government at all. Several privately-owned newspapers with foreign licences, for instance, such as the "independent" paper Al-Dustour, were shut down for publishing material that angered officials. Would a private-sector icon and a friend of the government like Bahgat jeopardise such warm relations for a TV channel? "I don't see why this should be the case. The private sector is part and parcel of the Egyptian sector. We are responsible for 70 per cent of the development schemes in this country. Moreover, we support the regime, and our interests lie in the country's stability," Bahgat argues. "Privately-owned channels are everywhere. It is the regime's right not to approve of them. But it's also our right to go ahead with our projects elsewhere."

The Arab World TV Network (AWTN) is another privately-owned channel that will begin broadcasting soon via NileSat from London. According to Mohamed Abdel-Aal, the chairman of the board, the shareholder company had been trying since 1995 to obtain a licence from Egypt, but recently gave up. Supporting Bahgat's view, Abdel-Aal, who is also president of the Social Justice Party, argued that the stance of officials is not in tune with reality. "I can understand it if rejecting privately-owned TV channels will prevent us from reaching out to the people. But the irony of it all is that it doesn't, given the fact that, even if we operate from abroad, Egyptians and Arabs alike can easily watch us via NileSat," he told the Weekly.

So is Egypt actually against an open media? Sometimes, centralised policies can no longer withstand the pressures of reality. It is a fact that Adib, Sarhan and many others are based in Cairo where they broadcast programmes hailed as examples of free speech. Egypt's state-owned TV might not tolerate their views, but the mere existence of such shows and the media revolution taking place -- albeit on satellite only -- is indirectly affecting "the margin of freedom". Take, for example, Hamdi Qandil's show, Editor-in-Chief, which is broadcast weekly on Egypt's Channel One. Qandil hosts the opposition and succeeds in conveying his unorthodox views to his audience, untouched by the censor's scissors. He can say, for instance, that an article by a certain senior writer in an influential national paper was banned. In last week's show, Qandil blamed the press for not making April Fool's jokes. "I'll offer you some myself," he said, before making a list of what seemed to be innocent jokes, but were in fact thinly disguised barbs: "We will not have any seminars on globalisation; security forces recently arrested an emir from the Gulf for holding citizens in a famous five-star hotel..." The viewers loved every second.

Officials such as Hassan Hamed, vice-president of the ERTU Satellite Channels Sector, puts it a bit differently: "Freedom of expression is there, but not everyone is making use of it. Many don't because they are too afraid, while others are simply more royal than the king," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. Egyptian TV does not adopt a more "daring" tone, he says, because "our society is conservative. We have too many taboos, and we don't wish to shock the audience." He adds, however, that Egypt's satellite channels do in fact "tackle serious issues and hot events such as demonstrations". But why are politically sensitive issues such as Islamic militancy and terrorism not dealt with? "Are these really issues?" he demands.

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