Privatization faces many obstacles
Once the undisputed center of Arab production, Egypt’s TV industry has suffered of late from cumbersome bureaucracy, overstaffing and continued state meddling. The Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), for example, has more than 35,000 employees on government payroll.
So, when talk of serious media reform and privatization once again surfaced in Egypt earlier this year, it was big news.
In February, Egypt’s Information Minister, Anas El Fiqqi, announced a three-year, multiphased media reform plan calling for the creation of a new regulatory body for the broadcast industry, one modeled after the BBC.
El Fiqqi also stated that the government would soon welcome private-sector investment of up to 49% in several state-run terrestrial and satellite TV stations, including Nile Culture and Nile Sports.
Talk of privatizing the TV industry has been bubbling in Egypt for at least five years, with similar announcements made in 2000 and in 2002. This latest announcement came on the heels of a scandal involving nepotism and rule-breaking on the part of a long-time ERTU producer. The scandal was minor, but once again, the need for media reform was highlighted.
Perhaps more significantly, El Fiqqi’s announcement — which notably excluded state-run newscasters including Nile News — came less than a year after the key appointments of several seemingly reform-minded ERTU players.
“The 49-51 formula has been talked about since the late 1990s,” says Habib Battah, the Beirut-based managing editor of Middle East Broadcasters, a journal that tracks media developments in the region. “What’s interesting, though, is that the government totally rejected it then. Now, this could be a major turnaround in the government’s position.”
For now, at least, most of the opening-up of the TV industry has been limited to entertainment channels. Local media moguls such as Ahmed Bahgat and the Good News Group’s Emad Adeeb have largely stayed away from newscasting, focusing instead on entertainment programming for satcasters Dream and Dream 2 and radio stations Nogoom FM and Nile FM. Privately held Al-Mehwar does feature news programming, but it originates from state-owned TV stations.
Indeed, even though the Egyptian government has lost the state monopoly on FM radio and satellite television, private investors are largely staying away from the politically sensitive news sector, leaving quality competition to come from foreign satcasters like Al-Jazeera, Orbit and Al-Arabiya.
Meanwhile, Egypt is losing its best TV talent, both on and off screen, to media outlets in the Gulf, where better salaries are paid. Popular Egyptian presenters Nashwa Al-Ruwaini and political commentator Hamdi Qandil, for example, were both poached by Dubai TV.
Yet another problem is Egypt’s increasing social conservatism. Local shingles, unable to be as daring as they once were, now face stiff competition from Syria and the Gulf, particularly in terms of the production of lucrative Ramadan serials.
Even if all the much-needed reforms are introduced to tackle over-staffing and top-heavy bureaucracy, self-censorship remains a major obstacle to private sector investment.
“One major player told me recently that the safest thing they can produce is cooking shows,” Battah notes.