Egypt seeks to limit disproportionate media and drama controls

Experts expect to see many changes that will end years of monochrome vision in the media.
Monday 31/05/2021
Billboards for drama series in the streets of the Egyptian capital Cairo. (AFP)
Billboards for drama series in the streets of the Egyptian capital Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO – The Egyptian government has moved to limit the influence of the United Media Services Company (UMSC) headed by Tamer Morsi, which has controlled most of the drama and media output during the past four years and worked under the supervision of security agencies.

These agencies took an interest in determining the type of content broadcast by the media especially through the control of drama production via Morsi’s organisation.

The Egyptian authorities are restructuring the UMSC in an attempt to create competition, because the monopoly under which it worked has failed to achieve the hoped-for boosts in content development. This, say observers, is because those running the UMSC had  “narrow visions” that inhibited content.

Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has more than once expressed his unhappiness at the performance of the media and demanded that drama productions tackle national issues. With the exception of some works that dealt with abuses by the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists and the sacrifices of the army and the police, there have been no impactful productions broadcast by the media.

Media sources told The Arab Weekly that political circles were annoyed at the sharp decline of Egypt’s soft power in the region in relation to drama production.  Some Arab countries have refused to buy TV series that featured crime and violence. Such programmes had been directly subcontracted by Tamer Morsi to favoured directors and artists.

The security services, which have played a pivotal role behind the scenes, believed that complete control of the media was the way to go. This was until they realised that a large segment of the public was turning away from controlled media and going instead to TV channels and electronic platforms  influence by the opposition.

It seems that there is a different approach emerging now in the circles of power in Egypt based on establishing limits to security agencies’ influence over outlets where freedoms are an issue, such as the media, civil society and human rights organisations. This was  illustrated recently by a law opening the way for civil society work and easing security restrictions.

The security services have extended their remit ever more widely to encompass many media institutions. This has exposed them to criticism by Egyptian and international human rights organisations as preventing pluralism of views and excluding the opposition.

Egyptian analysts said that decision-makers in the media field did not show enough sensitivity to the importance of competition. In other cases, they were driven too often by wariness over the risks of pluralism of views at a time the Egyptian regime was trying to readjust its priorities at home and abroad and facing challenges on more than one front.

The analysts said the resurgent role of Egypt regionally and its rapprochement with many countries led it to recognise the need for a media and drama production reset, including the restructuring of Morsi’s organisation.

Political sources told The Arab Weekly that in the near future there will be many changes that will end the years of monochrome vision in the media, paving the way for political reforms that have been many times postponed.

Editor-in-chief of private Egyptian newspaper “Veto” Essam Kamel said that the Egyptian government has drawn the lessons of monopoly that led to discontent in the ranks of large sectors of the soft power channels in Egypt.

It has also led to ever-louder complaints at the absence of competition and highlighted the urgent need to open the market as much as possible to untapped  potential.

He further told The Arab Weekly that the UMSC  had actually managed over the past two years to present diverse drama and media productions, but these did not cater for everyone and there appeared to be selectivity and slanted approaches relying on certain personalities but not on others.

The UMSC has argued that its goal was to end the excessively-inflated wages of many artists and media professionals and to try to better control the market.

But experience has shown that this vision was not warranted, as the UMSC itself ran up heavy losses and its production of programmes was at less than the officially required.

It seems that the Egyptian government has realised that it is not possible to benefit from soft power dividends in the absence of competition within the creative process. Moreover, it is recognised that seeking influence through the media and drama production is not possible without real competition and without  assigning the task of content development to the specialised professionals who could help restore the successes of Egyptian media and drama of yesteryears.