Seeds of dissent in the state TV fortress

A group of employees inside the Egyptian state TV and radio building, Maspero, are hoping to revolutionize the decades-old media institution that has served as the mouthpiece of dictators.

Two groups inside Maspero — the Media Revolutionaries Front (MRF) and the Independent Media Professionals Coalition (IMPC) — are calling for media reform. Both were formed shortly after Mubarak’s ouster in February, but returned with renewed vigor after the military’s bloody attack on a Coptic march that took place last month. Human rights groups and observers denounced state TV’s coverage of the attacks as biased and accused it of instigating sectarian violence after it ran an unsubstantiated news ticker which announced that Copts killed three soldiers during the events.

Major General Ismail Etman of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Information Minister Osama Heikal praised state TV coverage and defended it against accusations of inciting further violence. The mission of the two groups, which represent about 1000 media professionals out of 43,000 who work at Maspero, is not simple given the military’s insistence on controlling state media in much the same way as did Mubarak.

Moataz al-Akkad, a host at the state-owned Voice of the Arabs radio station, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that his superiors at work gave him direct orders not to criticize SCAF and state policies on air. Akkad added that the management’s directions about which guests to have on air are normally more subtle. “Instructions are usually not given in a written form. But sometimes they could be circulated in a form of suggested regulations or draft policies with no signatures or names on them,” said Akkad.

The now-dissolved State Security Investigation Services used to intervene in both state and private media to prevent dissidents from appearing on TV or radio during Mubarak’s regime. The military has now adopted the services’ former role. “Maspero is a military base; military police fill the halls and corridors of the building, ready to attack and beat anyone who objects,” said Hala Helmy, a TV host at state TV’s channel 2. She has not appeared on-screen since the 25 January revolution began.

The events of 9 October reinforced fears of state media. “State media are instigators: deceptive, and misleading,” said Helmy, one of the founders of MRF. According to Helmy, SCAF is using state media to instigate chaos across the country and negatively portray Egypt after the revolution in order to cement its rule and crackdown on protesters. Helmy told Al-Masry Al-Youm that she proposed an idea for a TV program that demystifies the current belief that the country is falling into ruin and sheds light on Egypt’s progress.

The idea was rejected by the management. “They are committing a crime worse than that of the police because they are distorting the psyche of a whole nation,” she said. After the Maspero violence, a group of 15 media professionals, including TV and radio hosts, reporters, directors and photographers, regrouped. They are currently working with a low profile and meeting secretly to avoid potential attempts to dismantle the group, said Helmy.

Helmy explained that the group is currently working on the formation of independent national syndicates for each media field, from TV presenters to photographers. “We have to unite … in order to be able to exert pressure on the government to reform state media policies and effect real change though legitimate and legal means,” said Helmy. “It will also be a front that defends the rights of anyone of us who is arbitrarily fired for bringing a certain guest or for defying the orders of the state security in covering an event.”

Another strategy currently used by MRF is exposing violations inside media institutions by releasing statements and informing independent journalists. The other group, the IMPC, also formed in March but dissolved over internal division. It resumed activity after the Maspero clashes in October. “We were shocked. No one expected such shameful coverage from state TV, especially after the revolution,” Taghreed El Desouky told Al-Masry Al-Youm, a producer at Nile Live and one of the founders of the IMPC.

The main goal of the IMPC is to abolish the Information Ministry and establish an independent media body with explicit policies and professional principles. The Information Ministry was dissolved after Mubarak stepped down in February, but resurrected in July when Heikal was appointed minister.

After the Maspero violence, the IMPC released a statement distancing it from state television’s performance that day and demanding the dismissal of Heikal and other corrupt senior managers at the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). “Osama Heikal is nothing but a military censor in Maspero,” said Dalia Hassouna, state radio anchor and also a founder of the IMPC. The IMPC formed a group of media experts from Maspero and private media outlets. It is currently working on compiling and analyzing problems in Maspero to develop a set of policy recommendations and comprehensive reforms for making Maspero independent. But the activist groups believe that it’s not only SCAF censorship, but also self-censorship by state media reporters and presenters, that poses a challenge to reforming Maspero.

“Most of the people are either loyal to the old regime or they were hired through nepotism, not based on their caliber, and so they are grateful to those who hired them, which means they would do anything they are asked,” said Hassouna. “They have been reared on Mubarak’s dictatorial regime and its ideology. They are anti-revolutionary.” Another problem with state media is that it operates with no clear policies or standards. “There are no set criteria for work, it mostly depends on the personal whims of reporters and presenters,” said Akkad. “No one ever talked to me about our media policy. I’m sure you can find a document amid the rubble stacked on shelves and in drawers, but it’s only on paper.”