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

In the wake of the January 25 populist uprising, independent media organizations have been struggling with the specter of censorship, the feeling that big brother - the military - is carefully watching and in some cases restricting their every move
Monday, March 19th, 2012

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 in the first place.

In several cases, owners 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 began to allow the establishment of private satellite channels, and prominent Egyptian businessman Ahmed Bahgat seized 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 and even groups of channels. This served as both a profit-seeking venture and an opportunity to have a mouthpiece used to express 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 Sawiris.

Over the years, and especially after the January 25 uprisings, there have been examples of owners interfering directly or indirectly with the running of their media organizations, often for more than once purpose.

Just recently on July 24, Bahgat fired prominent morning talk show presenter Dina Abdel Rahman after she had a live argument with a military general. The general called in on the show and reprimanded Abdel Rahman, a veteran presenter 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.

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 (At The Coffee Shop) talk show on Dream TV and editor-in-chief of Al-Dostour, 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, and the challenges it faced.

However, El-Badawi is not innocent of firing journalists for their opinions. In late 2010, he 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 refused.

Eissa published the piece regardless 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.

Owner of Al-Hayat channel and Wafd party chairperson Sayed El-Badawi and Dream TV owner Ahmed Bahgat are not the only examples of rich businessmen who own media organizations in Egypt.

Quite the contrary; most private media organizations, whether broadcast or print, are in fact owned by tycoons.

Perhaps the biggest of tycoons in Egypt's media landscape is billionaire Naguib Sawiris. In addition to owning shares in Egypt's leading independent daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, Sawiris also owns liberal channel OnTV that runs two extremely popular talk shows; Yousri Fouda's Akher Kalam (Last Words) and Reem Magued's Baladna Bilmasry (Our Country in Egyptian).

The channel, and these two shows in particular, have gained immense popularity after the revolution for their objective coverage and detailed expert analysis.

OnTV is not flawless though; what it gains in objectivity and detail, it loses in hastiness. The channel employs a very small amount of field reporters and as such, their coverage of live breaking news leaves a lot to be desired.

The objectivity exhibited by OnTV is not down to Sawiris's benevolence. Rather, he is a seasoned businessman and thus knows that the best way to make money would be to interfere as little as possible. Furthermore, Egyptian journalistic icons such as Reem Magued and Yousri Fouda would never allow editorial interference.

The channel is not without the influence of Sawiris, however. In May 2011, Sawiris founded the liberal capitalist Free Egyptians Party (FEP) and announced that the party would be contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections. Ever since the party's founding, campaign advertisements for it have swarmed OnTV. This advertising campaign doubled after the FEP joined with two other parties to form the liberal Egyptian Bloc ahead of the elections.

Furthermore, whenever Sawiris decides to send a message to the public or make a media appearance, he always does it on one of OnTV's programs.

Perhaps the largest indicator of Sawiris's influence, alongside all other businessmen who own media organizations, on these organizations is not what they cover or how they cover it, but rather, what they choose not to cover.

For the past few years, Egypt has been witnessing a surge of labor strikes that have been occurring almost daily. According to popular blogger and socialist activist Hossam El Hamalawy, there were at least three labor strikes a day before the revolution. That number has intensified to about 19 after Mubarak's ouster.

Yet news of these strikes rarely makes it to OnTV, Dream, Hayat, or CBC which is owned by wealthy engineer Mohammed Amin who also owns Youm 7 newspaper.

The pattern of wealthy capitalist men owning almost all of Egypt's independent media leads to them adopting an economically bourgeoisie agenda where labor strikes are discouraged and portrayed as destructive and anti-stability. Media outlets that do not engage in this are still complicit by ignoring these strikes.

The systematic and intentional disregard of these labor movements, which are an attempt to purify and reform institutions and business as well as combat corporate greed, clearly shows that these media outlets adopt a very pro-capitalist and corporate agenda.

Most owners of independent media organizations who have made their fortunes in other industries such as telecommunications and construction are personally opposed to these labor movements, which in of itself is fine, except these owners actively derail coverage of these strikes and movements in their news organizations as part of fulfilling their personal agendas.