Both of Dream TV’s channels went dark Thursday, save for a message to viewers: “Dream TV announces that it is unable to broadcast its shows due to a decision by Prime Minister Hesham Qandil ... despite the legality of the broadcast.”
This, the message continues, “proves the existence of a scheme to suppress freedoms, particularly those of the media.”
The state-owned Egyptian Satellite Company (Nilesat) cut the transmission of Dream TV, the first Egyptian satellite channel to air programs on Nilesat, and the forced closure has sparked the fury of media professionals.
The move was ordered by Nilesat, which falls under the authority of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), the cornerstone of the country’s Information Ministry.
Dream TV’s management says the disruption is an attempt to muzzle the media, as observers cite several instances of media repression since President Mohamed Morsy was elected.
Islam Afifi, former editor-in-chief of Al-Dostour newspaper — which opposes the Muslim Brotherhood — was referred to trial on charges of insulting the president. Al-Faraeen, a TV channel owned by Tawfiq Okasha, a supporter of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq and a Brotherhood detractor, was also shut down for the same reason.
This week, Dream TV, which has long openly criticized the former and current regimes, joined the heated struggle between the current ruling powers and the private media.
Dream TV broadcasts three sports shows and some episodes of its weekly shows from inside Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC), where it rents a studio. The decision to cut transmission does not include these shows.
The target of the decision is the second and main studio, from which the major political shows are broadcast. It is located in Dreamland, a compound owned by businessman Ahmed Bahgat, who also owns the channels.
To air or not to air?
There are two parties to this conflict, and each regards the other with suspicion.
The Information Ministry and the ERTU, on the one hand, say halting Dream TV’s broadcast is legally sound, since most of its live shows are aired from private studios in Dreamland.
Authorities say this defies the Free Media Zone Law, issued in 2000, and Law 13/1979, which regulates the ERTU’s affairs, both of which stipulate that live shows be broadcast from inside Egyptian Media Production City.
Dream TV’s right to broadcast shows from outside Media Production City was an exception granted by former Information Minister Anas al-Fiqqi before the 25 January revolution, they say.
On the other side is the management of Dream TV, which says cutting transmission is illegal because Fiqqi’s exceptional permit is valid for an indefinite period of time.
The channel also says it is illegal to abruptly halt the broadcast without sufficient notice, accusing the Brotherhood of flexing its muscles and abusing its executive powers to silence vocal opposition.
On Monday, after the channel’s closure, the State Information Service announced that any channel that wants to broadcast from outside Media Production City must first obtain permission from both the information service and the ERTU.
The curious timing of the announcement led media experts to label the unprecedented move as further media restriction as well as a conflict of interest, since the ERTU has its own competing channels and could easily monopolize the sector.
Mohamed Khedr, general director of Dream TV, says the decision to cut its broadcast is illegal because Nilesat does not have the authority to address channels directly.
“On Wednesday morning, we received a letter from Nilesat saying that broadcast from the channels’ studios was going to be stopped Friday because the exceptional permit granted to the channel by Fiqqi and former ERTU chief Ahmed Anis had been canceled — even though the permit was for an indefinite period, provided the channel paid the costs of hookups with [Media Production City],” he explains.
Khedr adds that the General Authority for Investment is the entity to address channels on issues of this kind, not Nilesat. The short notice proves the decision is politically motivated, he says.
On Saturday, Information Minister Salah Abdel Maqsoud, who is also a member of the Brotherhood, asserted in a statement that the decision to cut the broadcast was permissible, adding that the ERTU cannot allow channels that broadcast from outside Media Production City to continue violating the law.
“This exceptional permit has cost the state LE150 million in losses since it was made in 2006, particularly since the EMPC has various-sized studios that are immediately rentable,” he explains.
In response, Khedr says Dream TV rents a 500-square-meter studio at an annual cost of LE2.8 million; however, it is not well-equipped and entails additional costs to make it usable.
“The information minister has used the easiest tool on hand by obliging Nilesat to cut transmission,” says Khedr.
The move highlights the executive authority’s use of power to stifle the opposition, he adds, wondering why Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr and Al Arabiya, both news channels with studios outside Media Production City, are still allowed to broadcast.
He says the channel’s next step will be to file an “urgent” lawsuit to call for rescinding the decision to cancel the exceptional broadcast permit.
“We are also looking into more than one alternative to broadcast on other satellites or from neighboring countries because we are currently in a position where we feel insecure and suppressed,” Khedr says.
The incident raised concerns about state control despite the seeming liberalization of the media landscape through the control of key infrastructure such as communication satellites. In a previous incident, Nilesat stopped the transmission of Al Jazeera during the Egyptian uprising last year, in an attempt to mute its criticism of the toppled Mubarak regime.
“Before the revolution, our channels provided all Brotherhood leaders and the opposition a platform to speak their minds, including Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide,” Bahgat said at a press conference earlier this week.
“Now that they are in power, they want to shut us up, but we will not accept this because we don’t owe anybody anything. Our channels are opposing the regime for the sake of reform,” he added. “There are hot topics that must be discussed in the media, such as terrorism permeating Sinai and the natural gas finds in the Mediterranean. If we do not discuss these issues, we would be burying our head in the sand.”
Recently, there have been some on-air spats between some of the channel’s presenters and Brotherhood members.
In October, Essam al-Erian, Freedom and Justice Party vice president, accused presenter Jihan Mansour in a phone-in to her morning show of receiving funds from overseas to smear the Brotherhood’s image.
She filed a report with the public prosecutor accusing Erian of slander, and he was referred to a misdemeanors court at the beginning of November.
Erian, in turn, filed a report against Mansour in mid-November accusing her of slander by saying in a statement to the press that he was exercising political fascism against his opposition. Mansour was referred to the same court as Erian last week.
Two days after transmission was cut, Wael al-Ibrashy, the presenter of one of the most-watched shows on Dream TV, engaged in a heated argument on Mehwar satellite channel with Abdel Maqsoud.
Ibrashy described him as the “minister of lies,” and said he was a member of “a Cabinet of child killers,” in a reference to a recent train-bus crash in Assiut that left more than 50 schoolchildren dead.
He claims the decision to close the channels demonstrates the Brotherhood’s exploitation of power to weaken political opponents. Abdel Maqsoud, however, says the decision is valid, and that is exactly why media with their own suspicious agendas oppose it.
“Dream TV broadcasting shows from its private studios is like having someone ask for a tributary of the Nile exclusively for themselves,” he says.
As the two parties trade accusations, Suleiman Gouda, a columnist and presenter on Dream TV, says the proper question to ask amid the crisis is why channels are being shut down.
Gouda says the channels’ tone as well as debates on Morsy’s performance and the Brotherhood may have fueled their anger, particularly with some cases going to court.
“It seems the issue is primarily political, and that the law is only being used as a veneer to cover up what is going on behind the scenes, particularly since the country is suffering from an internal state of political chaos,” he says.
“This could have driven the Brotherhood to restrict private media because it uncovers this state of confusion using effective media tools,” he adds.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.
This piece was translated from Arabic by Dina Zafer.