Mostly Harmless

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And you thought Murdoch was evil: media ownership and editorial independence in Egypt

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While media ownership and editorial independence is an issue that dominates the thinking of journalists and media experts globally; the situation in Egypt seems to exemplify the strong need for a figurative “wall” between owners and  content producers at any media organization.

Egyptian journalists not only have to deal with strict publishing laws and both soft and outright government censorship, they have to balance this with the fact that their news organization’s owner usually has an agenda for owning the organization and in several cases will not hesitate to interfere in editorial policy, veto certain things or even fire a journalist or two to maintain that agenda.

Back in 2001 the government first allowed the opening of private satellite channels and prominent Egyptian business man Ahmed Bahgat ceased the opportunity and started the first such channel, Dream TV.

Since then, the trend has been for wealthy tycoons to start their own television channels if not group of channels, both a profit seeking venture but also in order to have a mouthpiece that serves their views and advances what agendas they may have.

Examples of such arrangements include the previously mentioned Ahmed Bahgat with his Dream TV and Dream 2, medicine tycoon and Wafd party chairman Sayed El-Badawi who owns the Hayat group of channels, and of course OnTV which is owned by telecommunications tycoon Naguib Sawiras.

Over the years, and especially after the revolution, there have been examples of owners interfering directly or indirectly with the running of their media organization, for more than once purpose.

Just recently on July 24, Bahgat fired prominent morning talk show presented Dina Abdel Rahman after she had an argument live with a military general. The general called in on the show and reprimanded Abdel Rahman, a veteran presented whose show was the only one to compete with state TV’s morning shows, for reading out an op/ed criticizing the ruling military council in the show’s journalism segment.

A clip of the argument can be seen below:

According to personal accounts later given by Abdel Rahman, Bahgat called her after the show and told her it was her last. She went on to start another show on Al Tahrir channel only a few weeks later.

This was not the first time Bahgat did such a thing. Bahgat, who had close ties with Gamal and Alaa, ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s sons, was known to play it safe and limit political adventurism on his channel.

In 2005, Wael al-Ibrashi, a Dream TV presenter and journalist at the daily newspaper Sawt al-Umma, was one of three journalists put on trial for publishing the initials of judges accused of condoning electoral fraud while overseeing parliamentary elections. Bahgat fired him before he was even sentenced.

Similarly in 2003, Ibrahim Eissa, host of Aala al-Qahwa on Dream TV and also editor-in-chief of Al-Dostour and was dropped from the network as part of a deal Bahgat made with the government regarding debt rescheduling in state-owned banks.

Furthermore, Dream TV and Dream 2 act as a medium where Bahgat advertises for his products ranging from televisions and heaters to apartments and villas in his Dream Land compound and rooms in his Dream Golf resort.

Sayed El-Badawi exerts control over his Hayat group of channels in a somewhat different manner. Rather than fire journalists who criticize the regime, Badawi uses Hayat to promote the Wafd party, of which he is chairman, by all means possible.

In recent election coverage by Hayat, the average time they devoted to discussing political parties has been two hours. One hour was solely devoted to discussing Wafd; its ratings, its campaign, how well it was doing, the challenges it faced, etc.

El-Badawi is not innocent of firing journalists for their opinions, however. In late 2010, El-Badawi bought the Egyptian opposition daily, Al-Dostour. When the paper’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim Eissa decided to publish an opinion piece by Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei on the occasion of the October 6 anniversary, El-Badawi told him not to.

Eissa published the piece anyway and the next day he was fired from the paper he had founded himself a few years earlier.

Both the Bahgat and El-Badawi examples show that press freedom has a long way to go in Egypt, and not just in terms of government censorship.

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Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

December 27, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Posted in Egypt, Media

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