Recent changes at Maspero don’t eradicate Mubarak-era mindset

In early April, 22 year-old reporter Salma Amer was told by her superiors at Nile TV that her freelance contract with the station would not be renewed, nor would she given a permanent one. She was given quite a few reasons why, but one stood out for her.

“I was told to my face the priority for permanent contracts was for relatives of those working at state TV regardless of merit … The favoritism is still the same,” Amer said.

The catchphrase du jour regarding the state media, television and print, is that it needs to be cleansed from the vestiges of the old regime, but insiders are claiming that following the ouster of Mubarak things are still the same.

Even changes in the television sector, made by new Information Minister Osama Heikal, have been met with consternation by employees and commentators who believe the changes are ineffectual.

Dire institutional problems and a loss of credibility after being a regime mouthpiece for decades are some of the issues Heikal is mandated with tackling. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) had reinstated the once abolished post of Information Minister in early July in order to solve these issues.

Heikal appointed Salah Eldin Mostafa as the new head of Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) and changed many channel heads mid-August. Channel One presenter Alaa Bassiouny has been put in charge of the Egyptian Satellite Channel with Osama Gharib his deputy (which has prompted employees to go on strike).  As for Channel One, director Magdi Lashin has replaced Fatma Al-Kasbany as the new head.

The recent changes garnered criticism from state-run daily Al-Ahram. Waleed Al-Sharqawy wrote that it was indicative of “a crisis in making the right appointments by decision-makers” and would escalate tensions within the sector.

Independent daily Al-Shorouk reported that Mostafa would not make any decisions regarding the television sector until meeting with Heikal. It also reported that Heikal faces budget constraints from the cabinet regarding the issue of raising pay-grades. The cabinet believed that it was not serving its purpose properly and had lost its influence with the masses.

At the state monolith which employs 44,000 people, employees complain of huge disparities in wages, favoritism, nepotism and the sector’s lack of credibility.

However, Nile Television head Mervat al-Kaffas believes the replacements are a positive step. “The change in leadership leads to a change in vision.” She stated that the disparity in wages had already been decreased and that no one currently gets paid over LE 25,000 a month, unlike before. She also said that there is now a freeze on hiring due to a large number of employees.

Journalists of the Radio and Television magazine have also aired their grievances. They submitted a memo to Heikal asking him to raise their salaries and end-of-service bonuses to the level of other departments at ERTU. Karam Mohamed, a journalist for the magazine said: “There are low salaries, favoritism and nepotism everywhere, and they won’t give us our rights.” As such, Mohamed and some of his colleagues participated in the 8 July Tahrir sit-in to object to practices that remain commonplace inside ERTU.

In March, people from inside and outside the state Television and Radio Building (also known as Maspero) began protesting that state media be cleansed. State media’s distortion of events during 25 January highlighted numerous editorial and administrative problems.

The state had undue influence over coverage, and within the walls of Maspero, the institution was riddled with corruption, nepotism and favoritism, according to employees. After the protests, longstanding head of the news section Abdel Latif al-Menawy submitted his resignation.

What’s more, there are red lines in place even now, thereby disappointing those who had expected that a climate of freedom would follow Mubarak’s ouster. This time the red line is the armed forces.

Coverage and the military

Shahira Amin is a Nile Television presenter who left Maspero during the 18 days that toppled Mubarak and joined protesters in Tahrir. One day, while due to report at her office, she parked her car near the square and headed there instead. Since then, she returned to Nile Television to present a weekly program in which she insists on having complete control over content.

However, she still faces obstacles. “Even though there is now more airtime given to opposition figures, we are still facing the same problems,” she said, “and there are still red lines. It’s almost exactly the same as before… same news channel heads, the editors are the same and everyone is working with the same mindset.”

“The army has replaced the president,” Amin said. “They cannot be criticized at all. However, most here practice self-censorship because they don’t want trouble or possibly lose their jobs.”

Nile News television anchor Mohamed Abdullah concurred on the point of self-censorship, saying, “No one has officially stated that the army is a red line, the employees are the ones who mainly censor themselves. Even in the private media people are afraid to criticize the military, everyone is careful when handling stories regarding the military.”

Amin contends that the military has a more hands-on approach than Mubarak’s regime, especially in stories concerning the armed forces. A representative may be sent and editing may take place outside the television building.

 “There needs to be someone to trust,” said Kaffas. “All the state institutions are no longer there and we only have the military,” yet she stated that this had no impact on coverage.

“We’re a news channel and we don’t have an opinion, we’re neutral. We show the positive and the negative and don’t hide anything,” she said.

But the criticism state media received for its coverage of 25 January has already led to a loss of credibility. May Kamel, a former Nile TV news reporter said that during the 18-day unrest preceding the ouster of Mubarak, she was asked to cover a pro-Mubarak rally to which she refused. Meantime, coverage of the Tahrir protests was meager. “I will not put my reporting in a context which is promoting the opposite view,” she said.

Another former Nile TV reporter, Salma Amer, talked about the day she was covering events in the street when the infamous Battle of the Camel (when pro-Mubarak thugs attacked Tahrir) began.

 “They wanted us to report on pro-Mubarak stories and most of us refused. I decided to go… and report in an impartial manner,” she said. “On 2 February we went to Mostafa Mahmoud, there were a handful of people and then we went to Tahrir with them. At that point the camels came in [and the attack began].”

“The camels came in so I told the cameraman to start filming and he told me are you insane, do you want to get me fired? When we returned I was asked to change my script for the newscast because they felt it was too direct, I refused to change the meaning, but some phrases were changed before it was aired,” she added.

Firings and contracts

Kamel is an example of an employee who was not on a permanent contract. She was hired on a freelance basis for a year and a half and was let go in April when the time came for a decision about permanently hiring her. Amer was also let go in similar circumstances, but contends it was for reasons of favoritism.  

“They wanted to take some of my stories and give them to other reporters, who were more favored in the department. I went to Menawy, who told me to continue working,” she said.

Both Kamel and Amer were paid by the number of reports they did. Every three months their freelance contracts would be up for renewal. “I wanted a contract,” Kamel said. “I’d been there for a year and a half and had not been hired through a connection. I met the head of Nile TV and she said there was nothing to talk about. So contracts were given to others and not to us.”

Amer was told that the reason her contract wasn’t being renewed was because she had been absent for three weeks, even though she stated she had approval for it while another colleague who had been absent for the same amount of time was handed a permanent contract. She was also told she had an attitude problem.

“My reaction was: you're firing me while continuing to employ people who believe and say ‘do you think you work for CNN? this is Nile TV, no one watches this channel’ while you're trying to work hard, get a certain shot, pushing for a certain interview,” she said.

After she was let go, Amer submitted complaints to the Prime Minister’s office and to SCAF over what she deemed was unfair dismissal that she insists came about because of confrontations she had with in the past during her employment. Confrontations she insists were a result of her objections to the favoritism prevalent in the channel.

Kamel said: “Administratively Nile TV is a failure, they can’t put the right people in the right places, no one has a vision for the channel, it’s very haphazard and that doesn’t include the issues with the reporting. There’s huge self-censorship, they’re not media people.”

A positive step

One step employees acknowledged as positive was Heikal’s decision to cancel what is known as the “yellow paper,” which is the ministry’s requisite authorization form for employees to travel abroad. Even if going on vacation, employees of Maspero needed this yellow paper. Employees talked about how it was an impediment not only to their personal lives but also their work.

Nevertheless, Amin still has reservations to the fact that Heikal’s position was reinstated in the first place. “The fact that he’s there, even on a temporary basis, is a total step backwards,” Amin said. “Why do we need a minister if there’s no propaganda? State media should be a public service, it’s always lame excuses.”

However Abdullah was more positive about Heikal, stating that the minister “is approaching things with a long-term perspective. He’s going about things calmly and in a steady manner.”

Minds may not change immediately and the belief is that the institutional changes needed within state media are a long way off.

“No one has a magic wand that will change everything overnight,” Abdullah said. “Television is an old institution that will not change instantaneously. We need these changes to happen gradually so the whole thing doesn’t collapse.”

Kaffas said: “You’ve had thirty years where you were aligned to a regime and you were supporting them so it will take some time to restore credibility and viewers.”

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