Is it time for a new regulatory model for Egyptian broadcasting?

Over the past decade, the deposed president gradually loosened his grip on the media, tolerating the rise of dozens of privately-owned satellite television channels. Most of these channels focused on entertainment, though a few took news more seriously, running nightly news talk shows. Some of these shows served as platforms to convey views critical of the Mubarak regime and may have contributed to the gradual build up of dissent ahead of the revolution.

However, while new voices were allowed to proliferate, the regime sporadically pressured the owners of some private stations to tone down the content and, in some rare cases, closed down channels. As the rules remained obscure, it was hard to predict what Mubarak’s men might consider an offense worth retaliation.

With Mubarak out of office and new broadcasters appearing every month, journalists and media experts believe that now is the time to develop a transparent, independent and consistent system for regulating the private airwaves in a way that will safeguard freedom of expression, ensure professionalism and protect viewers’ rights.

A flawed system

Under the law inherited from the Mubarak era, an investor who seeks to launch a satellite channel should approach three agencies, none of which is independent from government control: the Egyptian Media Production City for a location, Egypt’s General Authority for Investment (GAFI) for a license, and NileSat Company for a frequency.

The license terms, as coined by GAFI, state that a channel should not threaten national interests, must abide by government decisions in times of war, crisis and national disaster, should maintain objectivity, respect the privacy of people and institutions, respect intellectual property rights, commit to the right of retraction, not air ads about medical substances without prior approval from medical agencies, not foment “hate,” “extremism,” “discrimination,” “defamation of religions,” avoid “instigating sedition,” and not violate Egyptian society’s “moral values,”  especially by broadcasting sex scenes. These rules are pronounced in only a few lines, and none of the terms used are clearly defined.

The fact that the broadcast media is regulated by non-independent agencies and judged according to vague criteria needs to be fixed, according to experts and journalists.

“The use of terms that are undefinable is what we do not need. We need something clear about regulations,” said Naila Hamdy, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo.

Mohamed Nasser, a TV journalist with the privately-owned Dream2 channel, believes there is a need for an independent regulatory body comprised of journalists, representatives of viewers and channel owners, as well as trusted public figures that can develop a set of clear regulations.

“This body should develop a code of ethics for satellite channels and lay out clear sanctions in case this code is violated,” said Nasser.

Such a body should have the unique right to issue, suspend or revoke licenses, rather than the GAFI, according to Nasser, while the owner of any channel whose license is revoked should have the right to appeal in court.

“I do not understand why the GAFI is the agency in charge of assessing the performance of channels,” he said.

In September, police raided the studios of the Qatar-owned 24-hour news channel Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr. While Information Minister Osama Heikal said that the channel was closed down because it did not have a license, the channel’s lawyer insisted that the owning company had already applied for a license and was subsequently told that it had fulfilled all the necessary requirements.

Some saw the crackdown as politically punitive because the channel has voiced harsh criticism of the Egyptian transitional government since it was formed in March. In the meantime, experts considered the incident a result of the lack of clear regulation of the private media.

Looking westward?

In the West, there are two distinct models of regulating the broadcast media: the American and the European. Both systems are based on the presence of an independent regulator that generally serves three functions: setting a code of ethics to regulate the content, safeguarding competition, and monitoring the performance of the broadcast media and taking action against violators.

In the United States, this regulator is known as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The body is composed of five commissioners appointed by the US president for five-year terms and confirmed by the Senate. The FCC has the authority to set conditions for licensing radio and television channels and revoke, suspend or renew licenses.     

Although it has the right to impose fines, it has developed alternative, less strict measures to address the performance of channels by sending objections or warning letters. Given the deeply entrenched commitment to freedom of expression in the US, the FCC has had little regulatory control over content.

The US government’s firm commitment to free market economics has led to a similar laissez-faire policy with the media. In several instances, the FCC has failed to impose regulations that could protect minors or ensure broadcasters commit to shows that serve democracy and the common good rather than mere commercial programming.

“In the US, liberals, most journalists, and libertarians on the right are generally of the view that the less regulation the better, and that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ tends to sort things out reasonably well,” said Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “There are periodically efforts at moral, rather than political regulation,” he said, citing the restriction of sexual content as one such effort.

Such a loosely-regulated model, which depends on the belief that the good ideas can eliminate the bad from the media market, cannot be applied in Egypt, where the audience is not educated enough to make good choices, according to Safwat al-Alem, a professor of mass communications at Cairo University.

“The role of the media in a civilized society where democracy has been well-grounded over the course of 200 years is different from the enlightening role the media should play in a country that still pursues development and modernization,” he said.

For Alem, there is a need to regulate the media in order to free the airwaves from backward and manipulative content in a country where almost a third of the population cannot read. “There are tens of channels that spread corruption and backward values,” said Alem, citing channels that promote mysticism.

Europe: A better example

Egypt may find a more suitable model for media regulation in Europe, where regulatory bodies tend to have more authority over media content than in the US. There are two famous European models that represent the European method of regulating radio and television: the UK’s Ofcom and the French High Audiovisual Council.

Ofcom is described as an independent regulator and a competition authority. It ensures that licensees observe its ten-section broadcasting code. This elaborate code sets regulations for the protection of minors by prohibiting any material that condones or encourages dangerous behaviors, incites crime or leads to disorder.

The code also stresses a set of professional values, including fairness, impartiality and respect for privacy. Ofcom reports to the parliament. Most terms are clearly defined to avoid any exploitation of the regulations. At the same time, the agency declares on its website that it is committed to freedom of expression.

Engaging with media consumers is one of the notable traits of the British system that Egypt could borrow. The Ofcom mandate requires it to examine viewers’ complaints and find out whether the TV or radio station in question has really violated the broadcasting code. If it has, an investigation is opened. Ofcom reports the outcome of these investigations on its website.

Nasser feels Egypt’s potential regulator should serve the same function. “The viewer should realize that he is not just sitting there to consume stuff, but he has to have a role in holding the channel accountable,” he said.

As for the French HAC, this independent body performs similar functions and ensures that broadcast media observe the same set of regulations. Yet its mandate is not only limited to privately-owned media; it extends to public media as well. It also dictates certain rules to prevent the dominance of non-French programming over French. Both Ofcom and the HAC have the authority to impose sanctions on channels that violate regulations.

In Western democracies, most regulators are also in charge of ensuring plurality and guarding against monopolies, a rule Alem believes is much needed in Egypt.

“You have one person who may own seven or eight channels, another has four and heads a political party,” said Alem. “With money, I can control public opinion, then form a party and eventually become stronger than the ruler himself.”

Besides government intervention, TV journalists have always complained about the intervention of owners who perceive their media properties as a means to build political leverage and defend their interests.

Still early

In September, Heikal said that the government is examining different Western models of regulating the media, adding that so far the French system seems the most suitable.

Models developed by Eastern European countries that democratized should also be visited, said Hamdy. “[Eastern European countries] had a lot of changes too. Let’s see what has worked and what has failed,” she said.

For his part, Alem holds that the best model cannot be discussed until Egypt’s new political order becomes clearly defined.

“The media system is always linked to the nature of the political regime. After a political regime is stabilized, it decides whether to support media freedom or have the media convey government views,” Alem added.

So far, Egypt’s military rulers do not seem interested in easing restrictions.

In September, around the same time Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr was banned in Egypt, the government decided to stop issuing new licenses for private channels. These moves came on the heels of the sacking of TV host Dina Abdel Rahman after she challenged a military general on air on the privately-owned Dream2 channel in July.

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