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Egypt's new TV channels: Who pays the piper? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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File photo of Egyptian protesters brandishing their shoes outside Maspero television building in Cairo. (AFP)

File photo of Egyptian protesters brandishing their shoes outside Maspero television building in Cairo. (AFP)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—A great deal of debate continues to surround the financing of satellite television channels in Egypt. It is strange that despite the drop in TV advertising revenues, the number of private channels continues to rise. More than 25 private satellite channels have been launched in Egypt in the wake of the January 25 revolution.

Whenever the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government is criticized for private satellite channels, Islamists in parliament begin to ask questions about the presenters’ high salaries. Religious channels, the majority of which also appeared following the January revolution, attack “liberal” channels and ridicule their most popular presenters, such as Mahmoud Sa’ad, Bassem Youssef, Ibrahim Isa and Lamis Hadidi, for daring to criticize the government.

The religious channels often question the source of the funding for the so-called “liberal” media, without revealing the source of funding for their own channels. This has fueled suspicions about whether “political money” has entered the media arena to influence public opinion in a country that is still finding its way following a tumultuous revolution.

Last April, information minister Salah Abdul-Maqsoud revealed that satellite channels spent EGP 6 billion (approximately USD 850,000) on private channels, at a time when revenues did not exceed EGP 1.5 billion. In a public address, the minister speculated about who was funding these private television channels, and for what reason, claiming that political money was playing a role.

Media specialist Yasser Abdelaziz confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that “advertising revenue has dropped since the January 25 revolution,” adding that this represents approximately 40 percent of pre-revolutionary figures.

Abdelaziz emphasized that his statistics are taken from information received from major Egyptian advertising companies.

Abdelaziz claimed that despite the drop in advertising revenue, the lifeblood of any media organization, “the size of investment in the audio-visual sector has seen record increases, and has contributed to the loosening of censorship, which were used by the last regime to control the launching of satellite channels.”

The drop in advertising revenue has caused a problem between satellite channel owners and advertisers. This has led to lawsuits in some cases, and to public slanging matches in others.

Abdelaziz told Asharq Al-Awsat: “When revenues drop but the number of channels continues to rise, we must deduce that another type of funding has become available. This other type of funding is ‘political money,’ in a new reality that is developing in the one of the region’s most important countries.”

The issue is not limited to private channels criticizing the government. It extends to the religious channel that have a political agenda, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.

Abdelaziz stressed that these religious channels have benefited from Egypt’s lack of a transparent media system as much as anyone else.

He added that the Egyptian media needs to be restructured in a way that guarantees fair and transparent rules for funding and prevents monopolization.

There are still many questions, however, about the sources of the billions of Egyptian pounds that are spent on the new channels, and on the large salaries that are paid to some TV presenters.

Tariq Abdel-Jaber, a journalist who has worked on Egypt TV and a number of private channels, said: “Transparency is needed. There is no TV channel, radio channel, or newspaper abroad that does not have a known source of financing. Unfortunately, we in the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, do not know the sources of finance of the media. I want to ask some private channels in Egypt who finances them? Are the the presenters who work for them as publicized? And if so, where did those presenters get all that money?”

Egyptian parliament has discussed private media and the sources of finance. A number of MPs with different political affiliations suggested that some controls should be imposed, and a higher media council should be established. However, Egypt’s parliament was dissolved before any concrete legislation could be enacted.

Legislation in Egypt currently falls under the purview of the Shura Council, but media controls is not high on its agenda.

Abdel-Jaber stressed there can be no state without parliament, and that the dissolution of parliament is benefiting many parties, including the media. He said: “If parliament held a session tomorrow, a higher council would be formed to monitor these channels.”

It is not often that you find professional presenters who observe the basic rules of journalism, such as objectivity and impartiality, on the new private satellite TV channels in Egypt. In fact, the majority of presenters on these channels are not even professional journalists.

Maria TV, a channel that was launched after the revolution and employs women dressed in niqab (full veil), called on President Mursi to be tougher on the opposition. The channel’s director is a young woman called Ala Ahmad, a university student studying for a science degree.

Defending the fact that she is not a media specialist, she said: “All specialist areas needed in the channel are covered. I have been interested in journalism since I was a child; my father encouraged that in all of us. When we started Maria TV, I started feeling that the dream was achieved, but there is still a long way to go.”

The channel remains operational and employs 35 women, all of whom wear the niqab. Ala Ahmad added that the channel suffers from financial problems and relies on support mainly from Al-Ummah Channel, as well as some advertising.

Ahmad stressed that having watched other channels, including “secular” channels, she does not believe that there are any professional journalists on Egyptian television.

She said: “Our media is politicized, and does not have any impartiality,” adding, “the media that used to belong to the former regime operates under the cover of the revolution in order to topple the government.”

She claimed that in order to build an impartial media in Egypt, “all those who worked in the media during the Mubarak era, even with a single word, should be subject to political isolation.”

Ahmad expresses her support for the Islamist protesters’ siege of Maspero media production city in Cairo. She said: “This is not a siege, but an honest protest.”

Mahmoud Sa’ad, one of Egypt’s most prominent journalists, addressed officials who are angry at what the channels are broadcasting. He said: “Whatever the media does, people will believe what they want, and vice versa. This is a personal choice for people and we do not put pressure on them.”