Rude Awakening: Dream Drops Top Talkers

By Ahmed Osman

 Sanaa Mansour
 Hala Sarhan

Continuing the phenomenon of the surprising disappearance from f Dream TV, Egypt's only private TV channel, of its trade-mark presenters, viewers were astonished to be informed in the first week of March 2004 of the sudden cancellation of veteran presenter Hamdy Kandil's weekly political talk show Ra'is al-Tahrir ("Editor-in-Chief").

Kandil's sudden disappearance, following rumors of his having crossed "red lines" in many previous episodes of the show, in which he demonstrated his famously harsh criticism of the Egyptian government and gave voice to the frustration Egyptians are experiencing, came after a similar dismissal of Ibrahim Eissa, host of the popular program 'Ala l-Qahwa ("In the Café") in December 2003. Eissa had also tried to break taboos by using sarcasm to tackle many of the Egyptian government's shortcomings.

All this has raised questions about Dream's commitment to maintaining an acceptable amount of liberalism when dealing with serious issues. Last September; millions of Dream's viewers were astonished when waiting for the farewell appearance of Hassanein Heikal, the celebrated Nasser-era editor-in-chief of Egypt's leading newspaper Al-Ahram, and a political commentator. Heikal, who had decided to quit the field on reaching eighty years of age, was on the event's custom-built set at the studio when Ahmed Bahgat, owner of Dream, was called away to receive a call on his mobile, only to return and explain to Heikal that permission to air the episode had been refused by certain authorities.

Rumors spread indicating that Heikal had intended to deal with certain domestic conflicts that it was considered inappropriate to tackle in public. Bahgat, however, denied this afterwards in a televised interview, proclaiming "that Heikal harshly criticized the policies of the late Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat; and it was supposed to be just a farewell episode." Many viewers rejected this assessment in the light of previous problems caused by Heikal on Dream TV, as when Heikal, accepting Dream's offer to comment on the recent Middle East crisis, had hinted at the failures of the Arab regimes (an uncrossable red line), or when the station broadcast his American University in Cairo symposium in October 2002 and went into a brutal assessment of the current regime, and raising the issue of the "hereditary succession" in Egypt. Many deduced from this that the government had felt compelled to intervene vigorously in the contents and level of freedoms of many of the privately owned Egyptian TV stations.

During a recent interview Sanaa Mansour, Dream TV's new manager rejected the accusation that any sort of censorship is applied to the programs. "We have no taboos—[the only material we reject] is whatever may be in conflict with religion, adversely affect national security, or lead to sectarian strife." Mansour refused to comment on the Heikal and Eissa issues, noting that these events had taken place before her assumption of the management. Regarding the disappearance of the Ra'is al-Tahrir show, she denied that censorship had played any role in the program: "Kandil had the authority to say whatever he wanted. He signed a contract and everything was going as usual; but suddenly he excused himself from shooting for several reasons-once with a medical excuse, another time because he was traveling. Till now, he has not informed us why he left. All we have heard are some vague rumors about his rejection of the television business." Mansour insists that Dream TV is still on track in its normal programming, programming marked by a combination of entertainment and seriousness.

TBS also interviewed Dr Hala Sarhan, one the Arab World's most prominent media celebrities, and in many ways the power behind the throne for the launch of Dream TV in 2001. Sarhan believes that she was also a victim of the abortion of Dream's experiment with liberal broadcasting and that reactionary forces succeeded in killing serious attempts to develop an independent liberal channel capable of discussing controversial issues inside Egypt. Forced to quit in the summer of 2003, Sarhan declares that cowardice can never create objective media. "My last episode discussed a hot topic, religious discourse. This was intolerable for them, it was too much. Their decision came after an accumulation of episodes on different issues. Of course, they never forgot that I was the one who pushed for Heikal's appearance on Dream." Sarhan believes that the problem of the government and Dream TV boils down to one thing. They were hesitating whether "to open the door or to close it. In the end they decided to close it." Hala Sarhan remarked that the problem lies in the fact that all the privately owned TV statians work with the assistance of the government. Hence they will never succeed in being objective. They will always be dependent and always seeking approval. Dream is a clear case in point.

Ibrahim Eissa, who claims to be depressed by the interference of the government in the media, says that he has lost hope. "When I signed for Dream, I had my conditions: to be allowed to express myself freely and present what people are feeling, under a liberal-minded management like that of Hala Sirhan. Things were going perfectly, but after great success and marvelous reactions, their eyes were opened and the scissors of the editors had to start." Eissa says that it was easy to avoid censors by depending on the audience's intelligence in making sense of his indirect remarks; he always managed to deliver his message. "But when the prime minister himself insists on canceling my program in order to support Ahmed Bahgat in this financial troubles, this is really a question mark," said Eissa. Eissa, however, believes that Bahgat himself is a victim, a victim of his dream: he had aimed to establish the first private non-government TV station, a station based on liberal formulas and agendas and providing wider space for comment and criticism. Reality, however, sometimes destroys dreams.

Dream TV, launched in November 2001, succeeded at first in attracting viewership by reaching out to people with simplicity and a new spirit, but this vision came into collision with reality. Perhaps it is still too early to have a private channel in the Western image and it was inevitable that it would eventually fall back on a diet of light programming and videoclips. This is why many Egyptians were not overly surprised by the disappearance of Dream's prominent and well-loved presenters. Maybe they had already switched from the once popular channel to watch the latest Nancy Agram video clip. TBS

Ahmed Osman is a producer with Al-Arabiya's Cairo bureau.

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo