Egypt’s appointment of information minister raises many questions about future of official media

In controlling the media, Sisi’s administration apparently is trying to prevent a repetition of the 2011 popular uprising scenario.
Sunday 26/01/2020
A man reads a newspaper on a sidewalk in the Zamalek district of western Cairo. (AFP)
Thirsty for news. A man reads a newspaper on a sidewalk in the Zamalek district of western Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - The appointment of an information minister in Egypt has raised questions about the future of official media in the country.

The Information Ministry was eliminated in 2014 after decades during which it formulated media policies and decided what channels and publications owned by the government would broadcast or publish.

The 2014 constitution substituted the ministry with three panels responsible for organising media affairs. The panels decide regulations for official and private TV channels and newspapers.

However, the panels, which apparently did little other than increase restrictions on the media, failed in reforming the media or making it rise to the expectations of the government.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi criticised the media for failing to keep up with challenges facing Egypt, including terrorism and religious extremism, and raising public awareness while Egypt is the target of a media war with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement and its state sponsors.

This is probably why Sisi reinstated the information portfolio, analysts said.

“Political transformations make the presence of the Information Ministry urgent,” said Safwat al-Alem, a professor of media at Cairo University. “Egypt is at the centre of a ceaseless negative media campaign that must be met with a strong media strategy.”

The strategy was the topic of discussions between Sisi and new Information Minister Osama Heikal. The talks focused on the formulation of policies capable of spreading awareness among the public considering national and international developments and contributing in the fight against extremism, the Egyptian presidency said.

Heikal, 54, was the head of the parliament Committee on Culture and Media before his appointment as information minister on December 22. He previously served as information minister in July-December 2011. He is to steer the work of the official media, which includes television channels and newspapers.

His job collides with the media panels instituted by the 2014 constitution, which is why the panels did not welcome his appointment since he will be doing the same job they have been trying to do.

Heikal’s appointment comes while state authorities revert to total media control.

Apart from the official TV channels, state authorities, including the general and military intelligence, have TV channels and publications and had acquired most existing media outlets.

Those appearing on television and heading media institutions must abide by lines drawn by security agencies. This is turning Egypt’s many talk shows into copies of each other and newspapers into repetitions of each other: Egypt’s newspapers come out with the same headlines; talk show hosts discuss the same issues and repeat the same phrases.

In controlling the media, Sisi’s administration apparently is trying to prevent a repetition of the 2011 popular uprising scenario during which the media was instrumental.

In his last five years of rule, former President Hosni Mubarak granted the media unprecedented freedom and licensed several private publications. The media debated all issues, with few restrictions but this emboldened the public to protest on the streets and demand Mubarak’s ousting.

Mubarak’s downfall and the subsequent economic and security chaos cost Egypt dearly and opened the door for the rise of Islamism.

Sisi warned repeatedly against the media and rumour wars waged by the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as by Egypt’s ideological adversaries, Turkey and Qatar, although he did not mention the two countries by name.

There is the question about whether the media can be controlled in an age of information revolution but the desire to control the media is leaving Egypt’s journalists with a very narrow freedom margin, some journalists said.

“The journalists are badly in need of more freedoms and removal of the restrictions placed on them,” said Amr Badr, the head of the Committee on Freedoms at Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate. “The journalists face many hardships in their attempt to do their work in a professional manner.”

The restrictions jeopardise Egypt’s media, especially the official media, analysts said. Egypt’s state television is bogged down in debt and viewers and advertisers have avoided it. State-owned newspapers are losing readership and incurring losses. The Committee on Freedoms at the Journalists Syndicate said all the country’s newspapers, including al-Ahram, by far the largest press institution in the Arab world, print 350,000 copies each day. However, only 150,000 copies are sold.

Heikal will bring in more control to the official media to put the president’s view on how the media should perform and what it should discuss into action.

This may, however, scare readers and viewers away and threaten the future of the official media, specialists said.

“Official media will, of course, face huge challenges in the future,” said Galila Osman, a member of the Committee on Culture and Media in the Egyptian parliament. “The poor performance of the official media is causing it to lose the competition with the private and foreign media.”