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Egyptian State Media Changes Structural or Cosmetic?

April 21, 2011

The Maspero Building, housing the state television and radio company, ERTU.

Since the 25 January Revolution we have seen a number of dramatic changes in Egyptian media. But does this drama represent genuine structural change or mere bricolage?

The Egyptian Radio and Television Union (Ittihad al-Idha‘ah wat-Tilifizyun al-Miṣri–always abbreviated ERTU irregardless of language) is the state agency that operates all broadcast television in Egypt. Its role as a voice of the state was sorely tried during the uprising, when it famously showed images of quiet streets even as protests of thousands of people were raging nearby.

Like the police, ERTU was seen by the protesters as a repressive arm of the state and there have been repeated demands that senior management be sacked and policies be overhauled.

And significant changes have happened, just as they have in the state press. Senior staff have been replaced, and no cabinet level Minister of Information has been appointed.

These changes have failed to appease many staff members who are calling for more dramatic reforms. Staff point out that the new faces are mostly long time players as comfortable with the traditional ways of doing things as the people they replaced. And many of the sacked leaders have been kept on as consultants.

Worse, there have been reports that the government is planning to appoint a Minister of Information and is considering Governor of Luxor Sami Farag for the position. Farag is a notorious Mubarak crony; Farag carried out many of the evictions of Luxor citizens in order to carry out tourism “development” that would have enriched Cairene investors at the expense of the local economy (see here). My friends who protested in Luxor during the uprisings told me that the protests there were more about ousting Farag than Mubarak.

The government authorized a committee headed by the journalist Sekina Fouad to discuss the journalists’ grievances but ignored their recommendations.

What they seem to want is a “union” that operates like a union, instead of like a state-owned company. They want to be able to elect the heads of departments from among the union’s members,  a minimum wage of EGP 2,000 ($335 USD), and a restructuring of contracts and conditions of employment.

In 1984 William Beeman published a brief but useful essay on the media ecology of Iran before, during and after the revolution. After briefly discussing the relationship between interpersonal gossip (“the grapevine”), and state television and radio, he discusses the dramatic changes in the news media as the revolution progressed, only to settle back into its original role as a voice for the regime—albeit a new regime.

Whether the same thing happens in Egypt will depend in part on the extent to which changes in the media during this transition period lead to structural changes in journalistic practice.

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