In defence of the Arab charter
Minister of Information Anas El-Fiqi speaks to Assem El-Kersh and Shaden Shehab about the recent Arab charter regulating satellite channels and the challenges facing the industry
"We aim to protect society, and while the closing of a channel is possible under the charter this is for society's benefit not for political benefit or to defend a specific party's point of view"|
"The Brotherhood is forbidden to appear on Egyptian TV and satellite channels, but it is a selling commodity for others"
'We are in a phase of developing democratic understanding, and we want people to get accustomed to seeing demonstrations and strikes on television, which are legal means to express opinion and happen all the time around the world'
The charter regulating satellite TV stations that was signed in Cairo on 12 February by 21 Arab information ministers has aroused wide controversy over its objectives.
The charter, based on an Egyptian-Saudi proposal, authorises signatory countries to withdraw, freeze or revoke the broadcasting licence of any channel that breaks the regulations. It stipulates in general terms that broadcast material should not undermine "social peace, national unity, public order and traditional values" or "defame political, national and religious leaders". It demands "adherence to objectivity, sincerity and respect for the dignity of countries and their national sovereignty."
Why was the charter adopted by the Arab League members at this specific time?
The idea of the charter is not new. It has been proposed since 2005, with the rapid increase in the number of satellite channels, especially over the last two years. From 1993 until today, the number of channels has increased from a mere 13 to more than 400. This indicates that this is an ever-growing industry that requires regulation -- like any other kind of industry -- and drafting a charter became essential.
There were various suggestions from the information ministers. One of them was to formulate what was to be called "Unified Arab Legislation", but this clashed with the principle of state sovereignty because not all countries can commit themselves to the same legislation.
So, in June 2006 Egypt called for an extraordinary meeting to be convened in six months time, and a committee was formed to draw up a charter of principles and regulations. This was then agreed upon, and the same committee is [now] in charge of formulating the charter's implementation mechanisms.
Why were Egypt and Saudi Arabia especially keen on adopting the charter? Is it because they are the most concerned?
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the countries that are most concerned by the charter because the largest number of channels come out of the [Egyptian] NileSat, and other satellites are Saudi-owned.
Why was it that Arab League members were able to agree specifically on the charter, considering that agreements are otherwise rare?
If we agree on something we are blamed, and if we don't we are also blamed!
The charter constitutes an ambitious plan to regulate satellite channels, but is it legally binding?
It is not. But if the companies that rent their studios and space on satellites include the charter's principles in their contracts, then it will control the way in which work is carried out.
They [the satellite channel owners] need to know that the continuity of this industry depends on the satisfaction and support of society. Arab society is not happy with the deviations that are occurring. The political programmes and channels are not the crux of the matter because they are few -- three or four channels out of more than 400 -- and because in the media market, politics don't sell, but soap operas and entertainment do.
But why this paternalism? Don't viewers have the right to decide for themselves what to watch by simply using the remote control?
There is a difference between paternalism and protection. Protecting viewers' rights is a different thing from acting as their guardian.
Are there public-opinion surveys that indicate what viewers want?
Should we argue today in the Arab world about whether or not it is right to [have programmes that] teach our children violence, or programmes that negatively portray Arab women? There are basic norms and ethical standards [that cannot be disputed].
As for other programmes, experience will be the judge [of how the charter will deal with them]. The existence of an implementation mechanism -- to be formulated by media experts -- will determine which channels are not following the charter's guidelines.
The problem is that the charter includes ambiguous terms that can be interpreted differently, like "defaming political, national and religious leaders" .
The media and press code of ethics uses the same ambiguous terms.
That is why they are not applied.
It is not difficult to determine the programmes that provoke violence, superstition and obscenity. It's not difficult at all.
Some observers and media watchdogs believe that the real targets are political programmes and channels, saying that the charter is meant as a crackdown on political talk shows. What is your comment on that?
There is no crackdown. They know that there have been deviations and that these programmes are engaged in a competitive race for sensationalism in order to make bigger profits. Unjustified and unprecedented exaggeration is also used in the broadcasters' salaries. A presenter earns LE200,000 -- which is unusual in the Arab world -- but this is because the owners know that they make a profit in return.
But sensationalism is relative. What you consider to be "sensationalism" may be simply the right to inform to others, like the coverage of demonstrations for example.
The right to be informed and transparency are basic [rights] that are in the charter. It is not possible not to broadcast the news today. On the contrary, we are in a phase of developing democratic understanding, and we want people to get accustomed to seeing demonstrations and strikes on television, which are legal means to express opinion and happen all the time around the world.
Have the satellite channels played a role in encouraging demonstrations, given the demonstrators' knowledge that they will probably appear on TV with their demands?
I do not believe so. I do not accuse any Egyptian satellite channel of inciting [demonstrations], but perhaps [they have used] sensationalism and blown things out of proportion. But I do not and will not suspect ill intentions. I do not think the Egyptian broadcasters have anti-national motives. Others may have ulterior motives, but the agenda of the Egyptian satellite broadcasters is national. It is just the mode of presentation that is the problem.
Can we conclude that political programmes are not the charter's real target?
If a programme incites sectarian strife, there will be a stand taken against it. If it attacks minorities, we have to take a stand. It is our duty to protect society. But if there are programmes that criticise the government or ministers, then that is their right.
Why didn't you wait until the charter's implementation mechanisms were in place before sending copies of it to the NileSat Company and Media Production City?
For one reason: so that the companies can readjust their contracts [with the channels].
Was it necessary to draw up a charter to regulate satellite TV, especially since in certain cases officials have already told channels verbally not to broadcast certain things, which is what happened with veteran journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal on Dream TV?
We cannot act in this manner, and I do not remember that incident. The number of channels was limited [at that time], while now I expect that there will be about 1,000 Arab channels in the next three to four years.
Why didn't people from the profession itself draw up the charter's principles instead of leaving it to governments?
This charter was prepared by media experts and mass communication professors, not by members of the security forces.
Did you expect the amount of criticism that there has been as a result of the charter, saying that the charter is a retrograde step for Arab journalism?
There is criticism, and there is approval. Judge us when we apply the charter's mechanisms. Only experience will tell.
Those who are against the charter do not deny that there are channels that broadcast inappropriate programmes. But the fact that the charter is the brainchild of information ministers, meaning Arab governments that do not want to be shown in a bad light, causes scepticism.
We aim to protect society, and while the closing of a channel is possible under the charter this is for society's benefit not for political benefit or to defend a specific party's point of view. Two channels were closed down for [spreading] superstition [before the charter].
Isn't it possible that the next minister of information will interpret the charter in his own way?
No, because it is based on protecting society and regulating the industry.
Four newspaper chief editors have been given prison sentences, and so has a blogger. Now there is this new charter. Aren't these all ways of silencing the opposition?
This is nonsense. Factories selling adulterated mineral water have also been closed down, and [officials] in the cement companies are being questioned by prosecutors because there is a regulatory framework [for each profession].
To be more precise, is hosting the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, or broadcasting a demonstration by the opposition group Kifaya, against the charter's principles?
Not at all. These things are broadcast on Egyptian TV.
Aren't viewers more attracted to satellite channels because Egyptian TV and satellite channels do not voice the opposition's point of view? Shouldn't this change?
Compare Egyptian state TV and other state TVs in the Arab world. I challenge you to find any that have as much freedom.
Although there have been improvements to state TV, the pace has been slow. What is your comment on this?
What has happened is that we have introduced new components and formed a new identity. We [started] by developing the news, the weather forecasts and the economic bulletins. But in 2008, there will be a complete revamp. There will be a new programme grid that will enable viewers to feel the change, because gradual change is not felt and takes more time.
But doesn't a complete revamp really require more freedom?
Nothing is prohibited on Egyptian TV; it is just not sensational. I challenge anyone who claims that the political debates on TV are not objective.
How can a debate be objective if a group that is not represented is attacked, such as the Muslim Brotherhood?
This might have happened once or twice, but their sympathisers were still present. There isn't something called the "Muslim Brotherhood" in Egyptian law. It is a banned group. Egyptian TV is responsible for the appearance of all legal parties and forces on TV. The Brotherhood is forbidden to appear on Egyptian TV and satellite channels, but it is a selling commodity for other satellite channels.