A Road Map for Transforming Egypt’s State Broadcasting into Public Service Broadcasting
Posted on 4th April 2011
Elizabeth Smith, Chair, Commonwealth Media Group and Consultant, Transforming Broadcasting
Egyptians are now grappling with the new legislation needed to bring about the reforms demanded by the Revolution. In fact, many improvements could be put into effect quickly if there were the right leadership in the media institutions. But most of the Mubarak appointees are hanging on, reluctant to move aside, provoking in one case a student strike demanding the dismissal of the Dean of the Faculty of Mass Communication in the University of Cairo. Troops entered the Campus, used batons to break up the demo and four professors were detained. The government then issued a draft law banning strikes, protests and sit-ins that "damage the economy". This – seen locally as a greater limitation on freedom of expression that any law Mubarak introduced - was then approved by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces.
Attending a conference in Cairo on March 30 and 31 on "The transformation of state-owned media into democratic media in Egypt", I found a consensus on the need for a media that serves the public. The conference was organised by Naomi Sakr of the University of Westminster in London in collaboration with Baysouni Hamada from the Cairo University Faculty of Mass Communication, under the auspices of the Minister of Culture. It resolved to provide an outline by 15 May of the measures needed for a media which would tell the truth without fear or favour and be based on international principles of free expression, diversity, inclusiveness, transparency and public accountability.
Meanwhile a new Broadcasting Bill, drawn up under the Mubarak government, to set up a government-dominated Broadcasting Regulator lurks in limbo in Government corridors, awaiting decisions from the new Government.
The urgent imperative expressed at the Conference was for Guidelines for free and fair coverage for the elections in September. Unless there was specific provision for this, it was felt, it was unlikely that coverage could meet international standards.
It was interesting that some of the international delegates at the conference brought with them experience of similar transitions in Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism. It was clear that many of their reforms, introduced with high hopes, failed to deliver the public service media so widely desired. The legislation may be there but the reality is often not.
Reform of existing institutions was envisaged by the Egyptians, rather than closing them and starting afresh. With some 46,000 employees in the state broadcaster, for example, and a good level of skills and experience, there was no appetite for starting again with something completely new. This means that progress will be slow and fought over, step by step. I fear that the probability is that the country's major public media institutions may be sidelined - as in the Tahrir Square Revolution - by internet- based activists who can provide the news that people need faster and with instant pictures from mobile phones.
So much depends, of course, on the attitude of the new Government to be elected in September. But the academics and practitioners at this Conference were absolutely right to resolve to lay out the intellectual structure for Egypt's future media policy. This is exactly what the new Government will need. Whether they will then implement it depends on the September Elections.
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