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Liberating Egypt's Media

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On June 7, 1967, Egyptians nationwide sat glued to their radio sets listening to the news bulletin about a war involving many of their beloved sons. While most were anxious and worried, there was an air of optimism. As a patriotic song came to an end, the familiar and trusted voice of Ahmed Said came on air. In his characteristically confident tone he announced, "The glorious and blessed Egyptian Air Force has forced defeat on its enemy. In the early hours of the morning, four enemy fighter aircraft were shot down and eight tanks destroyed. Our nation's army has also made significant advances and captured hundreds of enemy prisoners." The faces of those huddled around the radio turned from frowns to smiles. They applauded, rejoiced, held hands and hugged one another intermittently.

It was only a couple of days before they learned that Ahmed Said's news report was completely fictitious. Instead all the reports were concocted to defray attention from the catastrophic losses Egypt and its Arab allies were facing at the hands of the Israeli military. The six day war didn't simply lead to Egypt's loss of Sinai (6 percent of the country's land mass), the death of 10-15,000 troops, and the annihilation of its Air Force, it also laid to rest the Arab world's then-most powerful revolutionary broadcasters -- Voice of the Arabs. Its iconic and beloved demagogue, Ahmed Said, had lost all legitimacy and credibility in the wake of the barrage of fabrications he uttered for six days. In fact, so convincing was Said that when news came out that Egypt had been bitterly defeated, most Egyptians were in a state of complete shock, disbelief and denial.

Since then and for the last 45 years, Egyptian television has been stunted. Bland, dull, unimaginative and chronically incapable of delivering accurate and relevant news in an appealing fashion, state television has been on autopilot and content with simply existing. And while Egypt was the first Arab country to export its product regionally over satellite, the Egyptian Satellite Channel (ESC) had resigned itself to the B-list of satellite stations. It was only nudged into a stylistic facelift in the mid 2000s with the advent of high-budget Gulf-based channels like Al-Jazeera and the private Egyptian channels like Dream, Mehwar, ONTV and others. It nevertheless continued unabated in its excessively airbrushed presentation of Egypt's deteriorating economic and political situation.

However, with the revolution in full force, few thought the state's toothless and incompetent television would actually revert to Voice of the Arabs strategies of completely fraudulent reports of the protests. In retrospect, the content from those 18 days has since become iconic -- from fake foreign-trained protesters and KFC conspiracies to an empty Tahrir and massive pro-Mubarak rallies. State television's calamitous fall from grace effectively turned Maspero into another Tahrir square where protesters gathered to challenge coverage.

These blunders allowed some of the Egyptian private stations to come of age during the revolution, most of which were granted entertainment and specialty licenses. Most adopted the late-night, prime time talk format and become exceptionally popular as audiences were transfixed by competing interviews with notable figures, revolutionaries and politicians (hosted by Mona El-Shazly, Yousri Fouda, Reem Maged, Wael El-Ibrashy, etc.). Some carried iconic interviews that shifted public opinion considerably during and following the revolution, such as the Wael Ghonim's captivating interview with Mona El-Shazly following his release from prison. These stations would steal the limelight and make television history with shows like the ONTV sparring match between ex-PM Ahmed Shafik and Alaa Al-Aswany, which some have credited for his government's resignation. Nowadays, few nights aren't accented with captivating programs featuring Amr Mousa, Mohammed ElBaradei, Naguib Sawiris, Amr Hamzawy, Sadat assassination plotter Abud al-Zomr, Salafi cleric Sheikh Hasaan and others. All of this has happened while Egyptian state television has largely sat idly by -- either in an attempt to derail the revolution or simply perplexed on how to manage the inevitable.

The only thing that stands in the way of progress in Egyptian media is the stubbornly slow pace of institutional reform. For over a month, Al-Ahram deputy editor Sabah Hamamou and colleagues have staged protests to persuade PM Essam Sharaf's caretaker government to dispose of Mubarakite Editor-in-Chief Osama Saraya. The decision finally came Wednesday as all the editors of all the "national" papers were replaced. Sharaf is promising the same will happen at Maspero.

Despite the positive gestures, I remain unconvinced that anything less than a complete overhaul of Egypt's media system will produce lasting results. The first step must be a courageous and drastic one -- the complete dismantling of the Ministry of Information and Information Technology and its relegation to the annals of Egyptian authoritarian history. What would remain in its wake is an institution responsible for regulating media and communications in the country with strict and narrowly-defined parameters to do so -- from issuing licenses to prohibiting government and corporate media monopoly. The Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) should either take on these responsibilities or live up to its name and become a union to represent the interests of the two sectors' employees. It should also limit its intervention in regional and transnational broadcasting by refraining from disruption of operations on NILESAT which had become a customary affair during the Mubarak era.

Furthermore, the infamous State Information Service (SIS), the country's ugly external face should also be fully defrocked. It has been a conglomeration of the most propagandistic elements of the ministries of information and foreign affairs, state security, and the intelligence services. For decades, the SIS has undermined any transparent or critical view of the Egyptian state in the eyes of the world. Their website declares that the National Democratic Party (NDP) is the first party in Egypt and was founded in 1907 by Mustafa Kamel! And while the site describes Mubarak as ex-president, it still counts the present day under the "Mubarak era (1981-)"! But this is neither a mistake nor irony. We are in fact still in the Mubarak era. The old regime may not exist in the Egyptian streets or in the offices of government but it dwells deep in the bellies of the bureaucracy that owes it very existence to him.

The institution that manufactures under-qualified journalists who are trained to be subservient to authority remains steadfast in its paternalistic ways. Sami Abdel Aziz, the Dean of Cairo University's College of Mass Communication, a high ranking NDP official and friend of the Mubaraks has been at the center of a firestorm demonstration by students who were striking and starving themselves to force him out of his office. He withstood this bout of activism with the assistance of a violent intervention by the armed forces who beat and tased students. This is the stubbornness of the Mubarakites.

On and off Cairo University's campus, the Supreme Council for Armed Forces is the new executive branch. They pose the greatest challenge to Egypt's new found media freedom with their violations ignored, dismissed, overlooked, or suppressed. A disturbing example is a recent episode of ONTV's show with Yousri Fouda which featured a call from an unnamed high-ranking member of the military. Besides his clearly discouraging tone, his anonymity spoke volumes about the possibility of an ominous future for Egyptian media. The invisibility of the armed forces flies in the face of free media. Talk show hosts treat military officials with reverence. Even when criticism of their conduct is warranted, questions are posed as if accusations are unfounded suspicions. The top brass are invited to dispel these and anchors react with satisfaction and affirmation.

In a post-Mubarak era, state radio and television should be responsible to the public. They should be under the supervision and scrutiny of citizens, not under the paternalistic guidance of state bureaucrats or the military establishment. Now is the time to end the media's blind pursuit of popular consensus with the farcical excuse of protecting national security and maintaining stability.