The Maspero Media Building Crisis

By Rehab Saad

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M­­­aspero Media Building was named after the French archaeologist Gaston Maspero, the former chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority. It was built in 1959 and is considered the oldest state-run broadcasting organization in the Arab World and Africa.

The Egyptian radio broadcasting began in May 1934 in agreement with the Marconi Company, and “Houna el Qahera” (This is Cairo) was the first Arabic station in the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) that was then followed by “Sot El Arab” (Voice of the Arabs) in 1953, “Egyptian Radio’s Second Programme” in 1957 and the pan-Arab “Middle East Radio” in 1964. These four stations covered most of the Middle East and North and East Africa.

Though Egyptian television started transmission during the mid fifties, the official broadcasting began in 1960, reporting directly to the Ministry of National Guidance (later named the Ministry of Information). The building initially encompassed eight national channels, several satellite channels and a number of radio stations, as well as several media networks and administrative sectors like the Egyptian TV network, the Nile TV network and the Mahrousa television network, to name a few.

In 1971, late President Anwar El Sadat established a decree to regulate the ERTU, and created four distinct sectors: radio, television, engineering and finance, each of which had a chairman who reported directly to the Ministry of Information.

Since the establishment of this historical building, Maspero became the center of creativity, its main target being to enlighten people and provide them with information, news and entertainment. In 1982, the Ministry of Media was established and Safwat el Sherif became its minister during which the Egyptian media witnessed a significant breakthrough.

Aftermath of the Revolution

The media has been the center of controversy these past few years, with claims of providing the population with biased, incorrect information and not being a beacon for positive media development. However, many officials and those working in the media believe that we are on the right path to solving this crisis to create valuable and credible content.

The content presented to the public after the revolution was doubtful to most, and accordingly, the media lost credibility, starting a crisis. Due to disruptions and political disorder during the period from 2011 to 2016, in which Egypt changed six ministers last of which was Dorreya Sharaf el Din, it was decided to terminate the functions of the ministry and appoint Safaa Hegazy as the new head of ERTU and chairperson of its board of trustees.

In November 2016, the State Council addressed the government to start the process of forming three separate bodies for media, as per the Egyptian constitution: the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, the National Press Authority and the National Media Authority, which were established by April 2017.

Due to an estimated 60 percent decrease in the number of employees at the Egyptian Radio and TV Union, and planning to move the rest of the employees to a building in the Media Production City, a lot of disputes regarding the future of the building and its employees were sparked, raising questions like whether the building would be maintained as a heritage one, or will it become a part of the investment projects for the Maspero Triangle. At the same time, what will happen with the relocation of the employees, and settling financial matters with them?.

Community Times talked with significant figures in the media: Ossama Heikal, Hussein Zein, Reda Mansour and Nabil El Choubachy on the unfortunate situation we face with the media that has led to many angry outbursts.

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Ossama Heikal – Former Minister of Media

Heikal is currently chairman of the Egyptian Media Production City Company, a member of the parliament and chairman of the Committee of Media, Culture and Antiquities.

When you were appointed as minister in 2011, you were attacked by the people and journalists. How much pressure were you under, taking on a signficiant role at such a critical time?

Considering the disruptions that were occurring and because there was a struggle for power, all the ministers were attacked during that period of time. Before I took that position, the Muslim Brotherhood was rooting for Safwat Hegazy, wanting to control media content and who appeared on television, and because I did not agree with them and their views, they were keen to keep me out of their way.

I was shocked however when I was attacked by people whom I used to know for years and was described as “the enemy of the revolution”. I had two options: either to refrain from my position, or to accept and go ahead, which I did because the attacks were not based on any logic.

In March 2011, I mentioned in el Wafd newspaper, as I was the editor-in-chief at that time, that Egypt was suffering a state of security outbreak and moral and media collapse, where I saw becoming a minister as an opportunity for reform.

Do you think that temporarily closing down the ministry was the right decision?

From my point of view, pausing the work of the ministry before forming the concerned councils was wrong, however, this was done as a response to people’s request.

Why do we have three media authorities, and does this cause any kind of conflict or overlap?

Actually, they are formed according to the constitution, so there is no overlap, as each authority is independent financially and administratively, each with its own set of responsibilities, objectives and system. However, I personally believe that we only need one authority.

The National Media Authority manages state-owned media institutions to provide broadcast services, digital and press production and related engineering services, whereas the Supreme Media Regulation Council enjoys technical, financial and administrative independence in the exercise of its functions.  The draft law sets forth its objectives, terms of reference and working system, and it provides licenses to private and national media, monitoring their performance to ensure that they abide by rules and standards.

The total amount of Maspero’s debt has reached EGP 22 billion. What would you have done to avoid the accumulation of debts?

I would have taken the same steps as I did here in the Media Production City Company when I was appointed chairman. The debt at the company was around EGP185 million, so in January 2015, I set a target to settle all debts, and started watching profit and deficit activities, while working further on them to make them more profitable.
I was able to settle the debt by December 2015.

In January of the following year, I started to develop an administrative system for the company to attract more investments, as well as developing a specialized system that deals with banks and private channels.

I believe that we have to look into what is redundant from an economic perspective. For example, we can integrate the news sector with the Nile News channel and treat them as one production company, as well as looking more into further reducing the radio and TV channels and keeping only those that are needed.

Are there mutual meetings between the Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, the National Media Authority and the Media Charter of Honor?

We do not meet officially as we are a legislative and control authority, responsible for controlling performance and issuing laws concerning these three bodies while resolving complaints.

How is the media content monitored and what type of quality management is enforced?

We used to see broadcasters or presenters in both national and private channels that make mistakes on air like forgetting the name of a guest or providing incorrect information, without being penalized. This is the result of the past six years in which we had been suffering administrative laxity, but now, the National Media Authority should take action on such cases immediately and decisively.

Censorship entities should also control all inadequate expressions, while the National Media Authority’s control department checks programs and series before they are aired in order to take necessary action before the audience sees it. Above all of them is the Supreme Media Regulation Council’s main concern is to monitor and judge, however, it is not activated yet, and we are working hard to issue new media laws and regulations.

What are the steps taken regarding the media institutions’ assets?

After settling the debts, the National Media Authority can look into the remaining assets, like land, and invest in some projects that can provide additional revenue. Also, old drama series owned by the Egyptian TV can be transferred into digital formats and sold online.

Priorities of the Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee include issuing press laws after addressing the Supreme Council for Media Regulation as per the constitution.

We also issued a law to activate the role of the Supreme Council of Culture because we realized the importance of holding awareness seminars for youth after the recent terrorism incidents.

What was the intention behind the parliament delegation’s visit to Japan last May?

The delegation included eight deputies headed by Dr. Ali Abdel Aal along with Egyptian businessmen invited by the Parliamentary Friendship Association between Egypt and Japan. The visit’s purpose focused on addressing technological issues.

Also, since Egypt is a very attractive country for investors, it was one of the issues that were discussed, and Japan showed interest in the new Suez Canal project as well as agricultural export.

Modernizing education was also an important topic during the visit, as Japan voiced its concern with the moral development of the children and linking the community to one value system, therefore Japan is planning to build 100 schools here based on their programs.

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Hussein Zein – Chairman of the Board of the National Media Authority

Hussein Zein has consistently expressed his keenness to put forward ideas to develop new media content in order to encourage competition and intensify programs including moderate religious programs capable of facing extremism.

What is your opinion on the current debt situation?

Mismanagement during previous years resulted in the negligence of debt settlement, and accordingly, the amount was doubled as a result of interests, and companies such as the Media Production City Company and the Nilesat Egyptian Satellite Company are unable to exploit their share of the profits that are controlled by investment banks.

How do you think the Maspero crisis can be resolved?

Our perception is to exert our utmost effort to upgrade the building and, restructuring the Egyptian television in a way that can take advantage of all existing laborers, while preserving their rights and resolving problems faced by the employees. On that basis, it is essential to form committees specialized in financial, administrative and engineering fields to follow up. Moreover, we need to improve the consolidation of values and promote the spirit of belonging and encourage tolerance and acceptance of others.

We also have to ensure that this state-owned institution implements the standards and regulations of media content set by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, and to guarantee that the viewer receives the right information.  However, we are still working on solutions and will discuss them in future meetings.

The National Media Authority has been preparing a comprehensive reform plan that includes five critical files including financial and administration reform, engineering capabilities and the development of basic content and structure.

We also have a large number of channels, radio stations and central administrations, among other platforms, that have become redundant for a long time, and so we are looking to rebuild and develop the former union sectors based on our new vision, in order to present to the parliament for discussion.

Are there any achievements that have been made recently?

At the beginning of Ramadan we launched nine new series worthy to be presented during that month, taking into consideration our Egyptian traditions and social values. We have also initiated the Observatory to monitor the performance of radio stations and channels during the first half of Ramadan to ensure that the programs and series broadcasted satisfy the public taste.

In addition, we succeeded in providing full coverage on TV and radio stations of important events and national conferences that took place recently, including the Youth Conference in Ismailia as well as the pope’s visit and the opening of projects in Qena.

We are planning to hold a Television and Radio Festival by October 2017, in order to play an important role in media cooperation with the Arab countries.

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Reda Mansour – Producer and Director, a 20-Year Veteran of Nile TV

What is your opinion on the steps that should be taken to control the media crisis?

I believe that one of the solutions is to invest in the TV assets like land and satellite frequencies, as well as creating a budget allocated for programs and series that can attract advertisers and accordingly bring in profit to settle part of the debts.

The old system of managing Maspero is the main cause of deterioration, because it hindered development, competitiveness and creativity.

How do you view the TV’s objectiveness, and are we close to achieving “freedom of speech”?

Anywhere around the world, specific stations represent different political views. For example, CNN represents the Democratic Party, FOX represents the Republicans and BBC openly supports the government, so I do not believe that there is such a thing as neutral media.

During my experience at Nile TV, I never felt like there was a lack of freedom, or that we suffer from intimidation or suppression of any kind. On the contrary, there was a program called “Spot Light” which I used to work on where we got to conduct exclusive interviews with Colin Powell, Condaliza Rice and Bill Gates, among others, and got to freely ask them any questions we wanted and not questions dictated to us.

How can the national TV and radio stations improve?

The quality of the programs should improve, develop training for employees and make sure they are penalized and rewarded according to the work presented. I think that in the coming period, the National Media Authority will play a significant role in media development.

redaNabil El Choubachy – Presenter and General Manager of News Programs Since 1993

How would you describe the media scene in Egypt today?

Most of the people that discuss political issues, whether in private or national media, know nothing about politics. The real catastrophe is that not only are there no sanctions, but there is no follow up as well.

In Europe and most developed countries, a ministry especially for media development does not exist, and so I believe that halting the ministry of information was implemented taking the BBC as an example. The BBC is a strong association with a huge budget, which does not interfere in politics, but they have the Supreme Council or Association that is composed of politicians and media representatives who choose the head of the BBC.

How can we improve the system?

We need to get rid of routine and administrative obstacles that hinder development and creativity. Some of my ideas for improvement is to include cultural programs. For example, knowledge on cultural traditions in different governorates like Port Said and Siwa and documentaries on our veteran artists. However, the belief is that interactive programs and talk shows are more in demand.

By the formation of the three bodies, and with the cooperation of the parliament as well as complying to the Media Charter of Honor and applying regulations and laws, we believe that the Maspero crisis will be resolved soon and it will regain its credibility through professional performance and valuable content.

We also have to follow the modern trend of digital media to create new ideas and embed it in our programs to attract viewers.

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