Supreme Council of Culture

SUMMARY of the conference on

Rebuilding Egyptian Media for a Democratic Future
held at the Council Hall of the Supreme Council of Culture, Cairo Opera House Cultural Complex 30-31 March, 2011


Rebuilding Egyptian Media for a Democratic Future Executive Summary of Conference Proceedings

The conference on Rebuilding Egyptian Media for a Democratic Future took place in Cairo on 30-31 March under the auspices of Professor Emad Abou Ghazi, Egypt’s Minister of Culture, and the chairmanship of Dr Basyouni Hamada, Professor of Communication and Public Opinion at Cairo University and Dr Naomi Sakr, Professor of Media Policy at the University of Westminster, UK. The conference was attended by 59 media, communication and law scholars and professionals from Egypt and 15 other countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, India, Jordan, Lithuania, Palestine, Romania, Serbia, South Africa, USA, UK: see Appendix 1), as well as groups of Egyptian university students, and was addressed by 30 speakers (Appendix 2) representing 19 institutions, including universities, broadcasters, media production companies, non-governmental organisations and one intergovernmental body (UNESCO). Debates took place in eight sessions (Appendix 3), the last of which produced a collective closing statement (Appendix 4). Of the remaining seven sessions, some sought to extract lessons learned from previous democratisations or identify universal challenges of establishing and sustaining democratic media. Others focused on the Egyptian context, including how to create an enabling environment for media democratisation and ways of democratising state-owned media. The summary that follows therefore encompasses findings that have emerged internationally and may be relevant to the new situation in Egypt, while also addressing specifics of Egyptian media. It is based around four themes that emerged from presentations and discussions.

1. Egyptian media need to enable Egyptian society to see itself The first line of argument was one that identified prerequisites for creating a situation in which media enable societies to see themselves — to see both the richness of their diversity and the dangers of inequality. Not all previous democratic transformations have lived up to the promise of achieving radical change in social relations. One presentation demonstrated how post-apartheid media in South Africa were implicated in a negotiated transformation that preserved elements of social relations forged under apartheid. Despite early advances in transforming broadcasting, progressive forces in South Africa did not remain mobilised for long enough to prevent ‘rationalisation’ and retrenchment of the national public broadcaster, which involved dismantling its programme production and reducing local content. Meanwhile the number of newspapers declined. As a result the country’s media transformation was premised ‘largely on a commercial media model with limited public service top-up’, shaped by the ‘growing division of South Africa into a two-tier society of “haves” and “have-nots”. Because of the interplay between media commercialisation and social inequality, society became less able to ‘see itself’ or resolve its problems.


Egyptian conference participants who had experienced what they described as the atmosphere of common purpose, free expression, tolerance and inclusion among revolutionary protestors in Tahrir Square looked to a reconstructed media landscape to engage with the complexities of Egyptian society and embrace the possibilities for a fundamental cultural re-imagining of the nation, difference, inclusion and citizenship. Various studies presented to the conference demonstrated how modes of representing gender, age, geography, piety, class, respectability and nationalism had been rigorously policed under Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, leaving large swathes of society invisible or misrepresented. There was strong agreement among speakers that editorially independent public service broadcasting should be a central pillar of Egypt’s future media landscape, being given the responsibility to reflect the nation’s diverse cultures, concerns and constituencies truthfully and comprehensively. As highlighted in the conference closing statement’s reference to diversity of media ownership, participants envisaged public service broadcasting operating in conditions of fair competition alongside private commercial broadcasters and not-for-profit community broadcasters. Experts on the financing and regulation of public service broadcasters showed how they can be legally required to represent all groups in society, irrespective of those groups’ purchasing power and attractiveness to advertisers. This requirement applies to all genres of programming, not only news. But it is closely aligned with the journalist’s professional duty to serve the public by holding power to account, promoting transparency and stimulating debate. It was pointed out that the conduct of a wide and inclusive public conversation through the media helps to undermine prejudice and intolerance and thereby forge social cohesion. Moreover, the duties of a public service broadcaster can be buttressed through a requirement on multiple broadcasters to provide public service content. Any frank and uninhibited public conversation depends on legal protection for free and responsible speech, which in turn depends on strengthening the rule of law. The conference heard how a project in the Balkans in 2000-02 had helped media workers to overcome their fear of speaking freely by protecting them against lawsuits for defamation, while also protecting society against extremist speech. Another project, in which German journalists shared their experience of self-regulation mechanisms with colleagues in Tajikistan, had helped to avert government imposition of laws that threatened to narrow the country’s newfound opportunities for speaking freely. It was recognised that the tasks of strengthening legal protections and professional development for media workers are interlinked. An exposition of UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators (MDI) showed how the MDI categories for assessing media freedom, independence and pluralism (namely: regulation, ownership, democratic discourse, professional capacity development and institution-building) are all equally important and must be considered holistically.

2. Egyptians need to see their media working for them without delay Several speakers referred to the short window of opportunity that exists after the fall of an authoritarian regime in which to put the prerequisites for media democratisation in place. Indeed, this sense of urgency explains why the conference organisers held it so soon after Egypt’s 25th January Revolution had achieved some of its initial goals. For example, the 3

performance of media will be key to Egypt’s forthcoming election campaigns. If the media fail to provide fair, balanced and impartial representation of all political actors with immediate effect, the resulting disappointment and disillusion will be deeply damaging. In order to create a public service broadcaster as the linchpin of fair and balanced coverage, the most important prerequisite was seen as political will. In this regard, Egypt’s situation was thought to compare favourably with others elsewhere, given that political will was being energised through a combination of top-down and bottom-up pressures for a break with the country’s immediate past. Given the importance of political will, participants were advised not to treat laws and regulations as inevitably the first or determining factor in opening the door to democratic initiatives. A specialist in community broadcasting pointed out that political circumstances may present ‘rather narrow windows of opportunity at key stages of development’, so it is important to be ready to seize brief opportunities for media initiatives that may arise from a legal vacuum, tacit acceptance or explicit interim measures. Media democratisation activists in the Balkans had also learned the importance of ‘seizing the momentum’, because the public’s favourable attitude towards the media immediately after a profound political transformation cannot be relied upon to last. Studies of postcommunist media transitions showed that ‘real life facts’ (such as battles for media control, audience fragmentation, commercially-driven trivialisation and sensationalisation of news) intervene in a way that puts the media at risk of being made a scapegoat for failures in building democracy. The revitalised media landscape needs to work quickly in the public interest to prevent the solidarity created by the profound transformation from fading away.

3. Negotiations over new media structures should be open and transparent How then to ensure that progressive forces in Egypt remain mobilised to achieve a lasting and deep-rooted transformation of institutions, including institutions responsible for media regulation, production and distribution? There is always a risk of negotiations being restricted to small technical groups who put too much trust in the new forces in power. Yet several speakers argued forcefully that those media bodies which appeal to all sections of the public, reflect the citizens’ culture and values, and provide them with a trusted source of fair and accurate news, will gain public support. Such support is one of their best protections against government interference. ‘If the audience loves you, the politicians can’t touch you’ was how one put it. Transparency was found to be a chief common feature of regulatory and accountability mechanisms that had been built successfully through consensus. Conference participants agreed that media structures that grow out of Egypt’s 25th January Revolution should use transparent and agreed methods of empirical measurement to count such things as volumes and genres of local production and audience size, composition and appreciation. In particular, a credible and verifiable system of measuring audiences was highlighted as a long-missing catalyst that was urgently needed for the growth of a healthy media environment. Similarly, the method of financing public service broadcasting was considered critical to the process of making it accountable to the public. A public service broadcaster cannot be independent if it is financed from general taxation and is part of the government budgeting and accounting system, with employees as civil servants. Instead the public 4

service broadcaster needs a dedicated source of income (perhaps derived from a levy on commercial communications service providers and/or communication and recording devices) and an independent Board to oversee its objectives and the procedures for assessing whether or how far these have been met. Accountability needs clear rules and its corollary is a system of sanctions that are enforced when rules are broken or objectives are not met. Importantly, it was shown that sanctions can work not only to the public’s benefit but also to that of media investors and their outlets. In the case of a media-created Press Council that imposes sanctions for violation of a professionally-agreed ethical code, the public denunciation of unsubstantiated reporting brings a loss of credibility to the offending entity, followed by a loss of audience and a loss of advertising. In such a self-regulated system, fair and responsible reporting thus becomes a means to economic viability and profit.

4. Transforming Egypt’s state-owned media is the most important step Given that free, independent, pluralistic and responsible media are strongly related to the vitality of civil society and rule of law, the conference participants agreed that Egypt’s stateowned media must be urgently and fundamentally transformed. This transformation is needed for state-owned newspapers, which have hitherto been misnamed as the ‘national press’, implying that other newspapers are less committed to serving the nation. It is also needed for the government-controlled Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), which was implicated in the political despotism, economic corruption, social inequality and cultural bankruptcy of the collapsed regime. The conference concluded that transformation of state press and broadcasting is the most important factor in rebuilding Egyptian media for a democratic future. Speakers made the following observations in relation to each element. First, unlike radio and TV, newspapers have the capacity to accommodate the widest possible range of opinions, which are crucial to enriching public debate. But newspapers, driven by the interests of advertisers, segment readers according to their spending habits and attractiveness to advertisers, which leaves poor and marginalised groups uncatered for by the commercial press. Since evidence from other countries shows that competition rules are not up to the task of safeguarding the survival of small or minority media in the face of expanding media oligopolies, there is a need for media-specific legislation to protect diversity of voices. Terminating state ownership of newspapers in Egypt must be accompanied by opportunities for the Egyptian public to own and manage print media organisations, with elected editorial boards and boards of trustees, as part of a transformed legal and ethical framework for media operations. Egyptian academics suggested converting state-owned newspapers into publicly listed shareholding institutions that all Egyptians have a right to own, oversee and hold accountable in terms of budgets, editorial policy and ethics. Secondly, where the ERTU is concerned, a major challenge exists. Overstaffing at the ERTU and its ballooning financial deficit are a legacy of the Mubarak regime. They call for swift action that avoids causing hardship to poorly-paid people whose livelihoods are at stake. Thus there are several strands to the process of reorganising state broadcasting. The priority is to replace the old structure with independently regulated public service broadcasting in accordance with the principles and values discussed above, including maximum public 5

consultation on any plan for change. The conference was informed of several published sources of expert guidance on the creation of public service broadcasting which are freely available online (Appendix 5). At the same time there is no excuse for limiting privately-owned television channels to satellite transmission. As a signatory to international human rights treaties, including covenants on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, Egypt has a legal duty to ensure that its domestic laws accord with its international commitments. Media legislation redrafted to meet these obligations will be based de facto on international standards and principles of free expression and public accountability. The 2005 UN Convention on Cultural Diversity legalises special protection for cultural goods as more than mere objects of trade. International norms also apply where media workers are concerned. It was agreed that framework legislation for the media should be introduced in consultation with journalists, to ensure that their independence is safeguarded. It was seen as most urgent for journalists in Egypt’s audiovisual sector to gain union representation, since only a fully independent journalists’ union can constitute a united force that will self-regulate on matters of ethics and professional standards. Conference participants agreed that the foregoing summary should be drafted as a record of the proceedings. The summary, like the conference itself, identifies components of the legal and political environment that will enable Egyptian media to advance democratic goals. Like the conference, the summary ends by restating the need for fundamental change in media in order to protect the values and gains of the 25th January Revolution.