No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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'Egypt in the Information Age' Debated at Cairo Festival

by Dalia Mabrouk

The annual International Cairo Radio and Television Festival, held this year July 11-15, is designed to give people in all areas of the communication industry an opportunity to be brought up-to-date on the latest broadcasting equipment and technology. It also allows exhibitors and traders to meet colleagues and to enter various competitions that are held during the festival. The event is a forum for media professionals to meet and exchange ideas and information with colleagues.

During the festival, a series of panel discussions, spanning both technical and theoretical aspects of television and broadcast media, were held. The object of these sessions was to bring the decision-makers of the industry into closer proximity with media professionals and to provide a forum for concerns.

Two such panels discussions covering theoretical issues were held in the Cairo International Conference Center: "The Impact of the Media Free Zone and Private Media on Arab Media" and "Internet and Television: Integration and Competition."

The first panel took a look at Arab media, its origins, and its development. Particular emphasis was placed on Egypt's evolution into the new information age, with attention being drawn to its migration from state-run media to privately owned media stations. Also discussed in detail were the construction of Egyptian Media Production City in Sixth of October City and the establishment of the Media Free Zone. Both these entities demonstrate Egypt's bid to maintain its formerly undisputed supremacy in the Arab media.

Each of the four panelists brought a considerable store of information, and between them presented a comprehensive picture of Arab media, past, present, and possible future. The panel was moderated by the Head of the Nilesat Thematic Channels, Hassan Hamed.

Abdel Rahman Hafez, head of the festival and chairman of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), spoke in place of Egyptian Minister of Information Safwat al-Sherif, who was originally scheduled to participate in this panel discussion. Hafez provided a thorough and statistical illustration of Media Production City. He said that from the start, Arab broadcast media has always been state-owned and run and, consequently, is a steadfast expounder of government stances and opinions. The introduction of satellite channels in the 1990s, he said, introduced new opinions into Arab media that do not necessarily conform with official government stances, and competition from these private channels has led to more open media.

Work on Egypt's Nilesat 101 project started in 1987, with a footprint covering half of Europe. Other Arabic channels began broadcasting via Nilesat, leading eventually to the need for Nilesat 102. Media Production City was built to serve the needs of Nilesat 101 and Nilesat 102, and also includes 29 studios facilitating channels spanning the Arab world and beyond. Hafez added that if a station wished to broadcast through other means than the Media Free Zone, such as the Egyptian TV zone, they were able to do so. (Since the festival, though, a law has been passed stating that broadcast transmission can only occur via the Media Free Zone.)

Emad ad-Deeb, editor-in-chief of Al-Alam al-Youm newspaper and Orbit talk show host, talked about the information revolution and its interactive nature. He stressed the integration of this new information system into our everyday lives and businesses. Competing in this age, he said, is impossible without embracing new technologies. Using mobile commerce, telephones, PCs, and IT technology in general to illustrate his point, he stressed the urgency for Egypt to modernize its broadcast media and bring itself up to par in information technology and communication applications. It's important for a new enterprise to establish whether a market exists, and if so, the size of the market share, Ad-Deeb said, but very few feasibility studies are done when new business ventures are pursued in Egypt. The next step is figuring out how to make money. If a channel is not encoded, then revenue is generated through advertising; if encoded, revenue is generated through subscriptions and advertisements.

Ad-Deeb also discussed the difference between terrestrial channels and satellite channels. Terrestrial viewing in Ramadan can exceed 45 million viewers. Satellite channel viewing in this same time, on an optimum day, would never exceed two million. Egypt, ad-Deeb said, accounts for approximately 40 percent of the revenue generated through media channels in the region, the bulk of which is attributed to terrestrial channels. The Middle East has a "double standard censorship policy" whereby governments are rigid regarding terrestrial channels, but vague and permissive with satellite channels, said ad-Deeb. The secret to maintaining a successful satellite channel, he said, is being IT friendly and able to transmit regularly, regardless of external pressures.

Naif Korayem, head of Communication Group and CEO of al-Manar Satellite Channel, painted a bleak picture of Arab media, saying that from the start Arab media has been the mouthpiece of governments. The national channels never worked in tandem with those of other Arab countries but individually, and more often than not counterproductively to one another. He argued that since there has never been a unified image of Arabs in Arab media, how could the West possibly have a positive image of the region? In 1977 the Arab League drew up an agenda for Arab media, aimed at promoting a positive Arab image, propagating the Palestinian issue, and nurturing a comprehensive pan-Arab understanding of world development. They were unable to accomplish this, and consequently, said Korayem, the Arabs never projected a sympathetic self-image to the West.

One positive, though, is that this laid the groundwork for competition and differing political standpoints in the new Arab satellite channels. Korayem expressed his hope that new Arab media can project an appropriate, positive and competitive Arab image, and that they can be on par with the "Zionist cause" technically, and with the West intellectually. In order for new media zones to succeed, he said, appropriate legal and policy frameworks are essential. The Jordanian and Lebanese frameworks were built purely on economic models; Lebanon's policy, Korayem said, was such that it better facilitated foreign investment rather than local development incentives. Korayem argued that Arab media have tended to concentrate more on entertainment than on intellectual pursuits, and that often there are ulterior motives behind the financial backing of a channel. While calling for more political freedom, he emphasized the need to protect Arab values and morals.

The final speaker of this panel was Farouk Abou Zeid, dean of the faculty of communication at Cairo University, who stressed that it is impossible to have a media free zone without a free media. For Egypt's Media Free Zone to succeed and flourish, he said, it has to serve a large number of satellite channels and stations that choose to broadcast out of Egypt. The interests, diversity, and number of channels broadcasting via the Media Free Zone would lead to media freedom. continued

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