While private investment in satellite TV is potentially a great advance for the general public, some still query if the government has the right wave length.
Egypt has long been accepted, albeit begrudgingly, by her major rivals in the region, as the media's centre of gravity in the Middle East. Pioneering, it has been at the forefront of most of the major developments in the region over the past century. However, its prominence has come increasingly under threat in recent years, with smaller, more versatile competitors emerging in more obscure areas of the region.
Long criticised for its refusal to liberalise broadcasting, as well as the financial dire straits the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) has fallen into due to the launching of NileSat 101, has led the government to take the unprecedented step of announcing that channels would be leased on NileSat to private investors.
So far, the business world has been cautious about taking up the government's invitation out of fear of too much state interference. This raises the question of whether the current initiative is driven by a genuine desire to liberate the media environment or by simple financial necessity.
More interestingly, what will the implications of this move be for viewers and the public at large? Will it mean a wider variety of quality programming or more of the same? Will it spark off honest coverage of controversial issues? Is privatisation of satellite TV, with its limited audiences, going to provide a wider scope of freedoms to the general public, who on the whole have no access to it?
Egypt's cultural and media dominance in the region has been compared to that of the United States in the West. As is the case with the US, it has the largest population in the region, a liberal cultural tradition (perhaps not as liberal as Lebanon's) and, Israel excluded, probably the most powerful military.
Its high-power transmitters, prolific and diverse productions that are beamed all over the Middle East by Egyptian and local channels alike, have ensured that the life, culture and dialects of Egypt are familiar to most Arab households. Although Egypt lacks the absolute economic might of the US, the media has proved a useful tool of dissemination, appeal and propaganda that has helped reinforce Egyptian cultural and political hegemony.
Egypt led the way in the emergence and subsequent development of radio, cinema, and television, as well as print media. In post-revolutionary times, the importance of having a dominant and diverse media was quickly grasped, and the Nasser government pumped unprecedented resources into developing the techniques, variety and reach of the media in order to diffuse the regime's Pan-Arab message more effectively.
This has caused a certain amount of distrust and fear among rival Arab regimes. This is one of the reasons why satellite broadcasting has only recently been embraced in the region.
“Arab nations didn't feel comfortable with the Nasser regime because of his use of radio to spread propaganda. [Therefore] Arab leaders, like the Saudis, didn't feel comfortable with satellite. That's why, even after launching ArabSat 1a in 1985 and six months later, ArabSat 1b, it wasn't until 1990 that satellite broadcasting was seriously talked about,” explains Hussein Amin, associate journalism professor at the AUC and head of the national satellite committee, as well as a member of NileSat's specialised channels committee.
Amin points out that: “There has also been a war of communications between many different Arab countries over the last few years. Iraq and Kuwait; Egypt and Sudan; Algeria and Morocco, to name a few.” However, he believes that the political environment is now more conducive to satellite TV taking off in a big way, “Arab countries are more relaxed now. It's the right time to be introducing the satellite medium to the region. I think Egypt deserves credit for setting an example that satellite broadcasting is okay.”
However, the legacy of central state control has left an indelible mark on the country's broadcasting landscape. Confronted with dwindling resources, bureaucracy, inflexibility and the state's stranglehold on TV and radio have caused the country to have some of its innovative and competitive edge corroded.
Although Egypt was the first Arab country, in 1968, to reserve an orbit in space for a satellite, it wasn't until 1998 that NileSat was actually launched, a good few years after ArabSat started transmitting from Riyadh in 1990.
NileSat has helped regain some of the lost ground. It currently boasts some 68 programmes broadcasting at any one time to countries across the Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe. It offers numerous sports networks, movie and news channels in Arabic and English, children's channels, science channels, religious channels and music channels.
A latecomer to the Arab satellite flock, it is the only one that carries international satellite stations, such as MTV, CNN and Discovery. However, one area where NileSat still lags behind is dynamic and controversial debate and coverage of key issues, especially when compared with the al-Jazeera channel coming out of Qatar.
The government has been touting this as a great step forward for democracy, but what are the implications for freedom of expression? Can a medium that is largely targeted at a minority or an elite ever really gain currency? Satellite TV could spell a gain for democracy in the long run because the state-run medium would no longer be the sole provider of information.
Amin contends that: “More satellite channels means more democracy because we see what other people are doing. More satellite TV means a bigger forum for people to express their views. Once you have freedom of expression, then you can tackle things that were considered taboo in the past.”
On the issue of reach he says, “How many Egyptians owned TV sets in 1970, even though TV was invented in 1935? … Many Arab countries did not have a television system until 1970. It will take some time before [satellite TV] becomes popular.”
Another issue of concern is why the government continues to guard jealously its monopoly on terrestrial broadcasting? The government appears to be reluctant to cede control of an important vessel of control, although it is under growing public and financial pressure to do so.
As a half-way measure, it has opened up the satellite field to be run from the media utopia known as the Media Free Zone in 6th October City. Amin explains this hesitation is due to the fact that: “Terrestrial broadcasting is a propaganda arm, it ties up with politics, it's a tool of change and mobilisation – a tool for creating public opinion. Leave it up to other people? This is my power. This is my authority. That's why they call it an authoritarian system.”
He expounds that: “We live in an authoritarian system. I never said that [ours is] a libertarian system. Look at all the writings on Arab states, you cannot find a clear definition of a media system. If you compare Al Jazeera with Qatari national television, you'll find a good piece of the truth about authoritarianism. Al Jazeera is one thing but Qatari national TV is something completely different. It's worse than Egyptian TV.”
However, he is optimistic that things will change. “We are in a new era of globalisation, privatisation and democratisation… [But] I wasn't born 6'2” with all the muscles on my body. Things have to develop.”
The interest shown by the private sector doesn't bode well for a more liberal broadcasting environment. Satellite TV, although it targets a small audience, ensures one with a high disposable income and wide geographic reach. So far, plans have only emerged to establish two shopping channels.
Tamima, one of these shopping channels, has already signed a contract with the ERTU. However, at the time of press, they were unwilling to comment on the exact nature and format it would take. However, there has been a reported interest by others, including big business families, such as Sawiris, certain political parties, such as el-Wafd, and, most promisingly, by newspaper groups, such as Akhbar el-Yom. Nevertheless, none of this interest has materialised in the form of concrete bids.
Naguib Sawiris, one of Egypt's leading businessmen, in an interview given to Al Ahram Al Arabi on 12 February bemoaned the state's desire to retain control by holding on to 25% of a private station's shares. He also took issue with the government's refusal to open up terrestrial broadcasting to private investors.
“Does [the government] want to dominate the cheap arena and leave us the expensive part?” he queried. Amin counters that terrestrial channels are not necessarily the first step in a natural evolution because their overhead costs are astronomical, for the investor, compared to satellite TV because they require a nationwide network of boosters and redundants.
He contends that: “…even in the developed world's media systems, like in France and England, you see models of government control and only small pieces of the pie are given over to private hands.” He believes that adopting a libertarian system overnight will be doomed to failure as it would most probably collapse.
He contends that we just do not have the regulatory system to permit a laissez-faire media. “We need a governing system to secure development of the private media in Egypt. Businessmen are so jealous of each other and they stab each other even in public. If we give them a chance to be on the air and we see a reflection of this attitude in the media, then we're setting this country on fire.”
He is also concerned that, without adequate regulations, it would open up the door to the potential manipulation of the public and consumers by unscrupulous businesspeople. “Businessmen want to invest in the media to influence [public opinion]. It's power. It's authority.”
Broadcasting in Egypt is on the verge of a new era. Whether this era will bring real change, more of the same, or exchanging one powerful interest group for another, depends largely on how the key players, as well as the public, deal with the new developments and challenges.
This article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Egypt's Insight magazine