Finding a voice: Social media and online platforms are transforming communications

The Egyptian media scene continues to undergo rapid change in the two years since the start of the revolution. The media has become much more diverse, and a number of new outlets have opened across all genres. While not all of these are likely to survive, they bear witness to a new appetite among the public for a more open media that gives voice to a broader range of views. A stronger, more varied sector is set to emerge from the current political transition.

STATE MEDIA: Egypt was one of the pioneers of the media in the Arab world. The first Arab newspaper, Al Ahram, was founded here in 1875, and Egypt launched the Arab world’s first radio station in 1934, Radio Misr. The single biggest media organisation in the country is the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), which was founded in 1960. The ERTU has a staff of more than 40,000 people, and runs nine television channels, six regional television stations and 70 radio stations divided among eight networks. Although the ERTU ranks as one of the oldest broadcasters in the Arab world with a long history of innovation in programming, the organisation lost a lot of credibility during the Tahrir Square sit-in of 2011, when its coverage was perceived as too blatantly in favour of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In mid-2013 it was perceived by many not to be critical enough of Mohammed Morsi’s government, and as such, began suffering from new competition, especially in terms of news consumption. In turn, much of the reason for this boils down to the fact that the ERTU has no effective independence from the government.

Firstly, the director-general of the ERTU is appointed directly by the minister of information, rather than an arms-length body. Furthermore, despite accepting advertising, the ERTU runs at a continual loss, meaning it is dependent on an annual subsidy from the government that amounts to around LE12bn ($1.71bn) in 2011, according to a report by media watchdog Article 19. Although on paper the organisation receives licence fees, which are paid as part of the electricity bill, for years the amount (roughly LE1, or $0.12, per month) has not been raised in line with inflation, meaning that even if it were to be collected more effectively, the sums raised would still be inadequate for running the corporation. Moreover, internally, the ERTU is structured along the lines of a government department, meaning internal procedures and operations can be very bureaucratic. As such, the organisational culture has developed by playing it safe and trying not to raise controversy, which in turn results in the public channels having a reputation for producing somewhat uncritical and stodgy programmes. Over the long term, the ERTU appears likely to be broken up, with many of its stations and broadcasting frequencies being transferred to the private sector, although this could prove difficult. Journalists and staff at the Maspero, the iconic ERTU building located in downtown Cairo, which acts as a shorthand for the organisation, have staged a number of strikes in 2012-13 over job losses and perceived political interference.

PRIVATE MEDIA: On the other hand, private channels are in the industry to gain audience share, and hence advertising revenues, and therefore tend to try and offer programmes that are a little bit bolder. In a newly revivified political climate, talk shows have gained importance. Most of these tend to focus on political matters rather than personal issues or celebrities, and a number of presenters have gained a reputation as controversialists. However, many people seek a bit of escapism from politics, and talent shows, often based on international formats, are hugely popular. Perhaps the most popular currently is “Ahla Sawt” (“The Voice”), which is based on a Dutch format, and shown on MBC, a pan-Arab channel broadcast from Lebanon. Other popular shows include “The X Factor”, shown on CBC, and “Arab Idol”, a version of the British “Pop Idol” format, which is also shown on MBC. Almost all Egyptians have access to satellite broadcasting, which is the preferred mode in the country, and the common Arabic language allows satellite broadcasters access to a potential market of 300m viewers. While a number of talent programmes are shown on pan-Arab satellite channels, broadcast from Lebanon or the Gulf countries, Egypt remains a major producer of content and Egyptian media professionals can be found across the Middle East. Arabic is split between a standard written language and a number of spoken dialects, of which the Egyptian (or more specifically, the Cairene) is the most prestigious and widely understood. This is due to the prevalence of Egyptian films and television programmes on Arab TV screens since the 1950s. While certain pan-Arab news channels, such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, have a reputation as fairly professional newscasters, in general, Egyptians prefer to watch programming in their own dialect, meaning that home channels retain a certain advantage, and prompting a number of pan-Arab media groups such as MBC and Rotana to set up dedicated channels showing Egyptian programming.

Ibrahim El Moallem, chairman of the Shorouk group, a portfolio company of Citadel Capital, told OBG, “The best opportunity for Western media outlets to develop Arabic content is not to develop it alone, as a local partner can offer them regional expertise and know-how. Western media looking to penetrate the Arab content market should look to local partnerships and content licensing deals.”

NEW CHANNELS: Since early 2011, several new TV channels have opened, such as ON TV, which was founded in 2009 but made a name for itself by its coverage of the 2011 revolution, and Al Nahar TV. Current regulations allow the identity of the owner(s) of a television channel to remain opaque, and some of the new channels are explicitly partisan operations in favour of a political party, while big businesses have either set up or bought into a number of private radio and television stations. On the other hand, private media exhibits a much broader range of views than before, with some channels offering more “Islamic” content, such as Al Nas or Al Rahma, and others more secular-oriented, such as ON TV. However, private channels as well as the public tend to shy away from hard-hitting exposés and investigative journalism. This is partly due, as in more developed markets, to the high cost of such work in an era when journalists are under pressure to turn in a constant flow of stories and partly to an unclear legal background.

LEGAL ENVIRONMENT: Indeed, the legal environment remains one of the biggest issues for the emerging media. Firstly, there is no dedicated regulator or complaints body. The Ministry of Information was briefly abolished in February 2011, but it was reinstated in July that year. Ownership of the country’s broadcasting spectrum ultimately remains with the ERTU, but responsibility for licensing private media outlets lies with the Ministry of Investment. As might be expected in a revolutionary, highly charged political atmosphere, people across the political spectrum are testing the boundaries and evoking the right to free speech.

At the same time, in addition to outlawing libel, slander and so forth, the law contains vague provisions allowing for prosecutions to be brought for a number of ill-defined offences, such as “defamation of religion”, “endangering national security”, “insulting public decency” and so forth. Given the imprecise terms involved, these clauses allow cases to be brought against journalists, arguably endangering free speech; one example was the Bassem Youssef case, in which Youssef, the presenter of the satirical current affairs programme “Al Barnameg”, was prosecuted by a private individual for defamation of religion before finally being cleared in April 2013. Many media professionals suggest that new laws will ultimately be needed to separate out and define the limits of responsible free speech, at the same time as criminalising libel, defamation and inciting hatred.

MEMBERSHIP BODIES: Additionally, to be a journalist in Egypt, technically, one must belong to the Journalists’ Syndicate, a professional body organised on the lines of the bar or a general medical council. In principle, the syndicate has the responsibility of ensuring the professional and ethical conduct of its members, and journalists can be removed as members for unethical practices.

However, around 10 years ago, the syndicate froze its membership at around 5000 members, citing a lack of resources necessary to enable it to take on growing numbers. As such, many younger journalists are no longer members, although many are on the waiting list to get in. Moreover, the Journalists’ Syndicate is a highly politicised body, and many believe it can no longer stand up for journalists or act as an effective disciplinary mechanism.

The new constitution, which was passed in November 2012, but whose status as of mid-2013 remained uncertain, contains two articles (Articles 215 and 216) that, respectively, make provision for the setting up of the National Council for Media Regulation and the National Council for the Regulation of State Media. This has created some unease due to confusing nature of the articles, as it is unclear whether there is to be one set of laws regulating media, or two separate systems for private and state media.

Moreover, the articles as formulated fail to specify that the regulator(s) should be administratively and financially independent. Nevertheless, many journalists and members of the public broadly welcomed the articles, as there was a feeling that, without enshrining the principle in the constitution, a media regulator might never have come about at all. This said, at the time of writing, a media law establishing such a body had yet to be passed, and political priorities meant that little was likely to change until after parliamentary elections in February 2014.

TAKING INITIATIVE: Many have suggested that the industry develop a system of self-regulation with a specific code of practice before the state brings in a system that may be far more onerous. Rasha Allam, a professor of journalism and mass communications at the American University in Cairo, and a columnist for Al Masry Al Youm, told OBG, “The media in Egypt need to come together and regulate themselves. We should come up with a voluntary code of practice before the media council can be formed by the state; if that happens, then its regulations are likely to be much more controlling and onerous.”

For his part, Tarek Atia, the CEO of the Egypt Media Development Programme, suggests the industry needs to engage in a concerted and constant lobbying effort to convince the general public as well as state institutions of the importance of a free media. “Activists need to focus on a few specific provisions in the law and get them removed. There are too many issues to hope to achieve wholesale reform in one go,” Atia told OBG. “They need to focus on the public to make them aware of the importance of, and to demand, a free media. We have to see consistent lobbying from across the media industry, both from proprietors and from professionals.”

PRESS: Traditionally, the leading newspaper in Egypt has been Al Ahram. Founded in 1875, the newspaper was nationalised in 1960 and forms a part of a government-owned printing, publishing and advertising group, the Al Ahram Foundation. Especially among Arab papers, Al Ahram retains a great deal of prestige and is known for its high-toned prose style. Until the start of the revolution of 2011, the leading papers in Egypt were traditionally Al Ahram, Al Akhbar and Al Gomhouria, all of which were linked in some way to the regime, although an independent press did exist. Since 2011 the circulation of Al Masry Al Youm, an independent paper founded in 2004, has risen massively thanks to the credibility of its Tahrir Square events coverage.

Since the start of the revolution in 2011, several new papers have been founded, such as El Watan, Al Youm Al Sabi and El Tahrir. The new press is something of a mixed bag, with the degree of professionalism varying, and some papers appear more likely to survive than others. As with TV, a number of papers are either organs of various political parties, or else supported by wealthy proprietors. In addition to the Arabic-language press, there are a number of foreign language publications in Egypt. The government owns The Egyptian Gazette and Al Ahram Weekly, which are issued in English, and Al Ahram Hebdo, which is issued in French. In terms of private foreign language media, The Egypt Daily News is the only remaining independent English-language paper in the country.

Egypt Independent, which was founded in 2010, reached 50 issues, but it was shut in April 2013 by its parent corporation, Al Masry Al Youm, citing financial difficulties.

In terms of tone, most Egyptian newspapers remain close to the broadsheet model: fairly conservative in tone with a focus on elegant language, and with considerable coverage of politics and serious subjects, such as business and culture, but relatively few human interest stories. As such, many observers agree there is still plenty of room for more tabloid publications to hit the market, although the potential demand for sensationalist features or investigative journalism is currently uncertain.

However, the Egyptian press has been affected as much as anywhere else by the shift to digital, although arguably the press has not yet adapted fully to the new business model that this requires. Most papers have an online presence, but it does not yet form a significant part of their revenue base or marketing strategy. As with developed markets, there has been a trend of moving from newspaper to “viewspaper”, with opinion and comment sections growing, although arguably this is in line with public appetite for more debate at the present time. However, in terms of marketing, there still has not been a concerted effort to build loyalty and brand awareness with newspapers. This is partly due to a different demographic dynamic in the Egyptian market. Firstly, television remains by far the most important medium in a country where the illiteracy rate runs at around 28% (according to World Bank indicators). This means total readership is still low, although papers are often passed around at workplaces, and newspapers still retain prestige that the small screen is felt to lack. To date, however, there has been no independent, transparent audit of circulation, thus impeding improved targeting and segmentation of the press.

MAGAZINES: While papers remain a lively industry in Egypt, magazines and periodicals are less so, with relatively few titles, and combined sales of just $27m, according to figures from the Pan Arab Research Centre. In part, this reflects low literacy rates and purchasing power, and the fact that at a certain social level, there is greater cachet in reading magazines in English or French than in Arabic. Over the long term, the growth of the Egyptian middle class means that specialist publications are likely to assume importance as a source of revenue for media groups, since they offer a way to better focus advertising on a target demographic and, as in many countries, people are generally more willing to pay for specialist publications than for general papers and magazines. Egypt already has a number of specialist dailies, mostly geared to business (e.g. Al Mal) or sports, and as of early 2013, a number of publishing groups were reportedly considering setting up special interest papers, either weeklies or monthlies, as a means to develop this revenue stream.

PUBLISHING: On the other hand, there is slow but discernible growth in the book industry, with new publishers having entered the market in recent years, and the volume of sales slowly rising. Egypt has had a wellestablished publishing industry since the 19th century, and the Cairo Book Fair is a big feature on the Arab publishing circuit. In 2011 the fair was cancelled since it coincided with the unrest of the Tahrir Square revolution in January 2011, but it was reinstated in 2012, when it attracted 745 publishing houses, only just below 765 exhibitors in 2010. However, book sales remained below the 2010 level, at 1.9m in 2012 compared to 3m in 2010.

RADIO: The radio scene in Egypt remains buoyant and popular. The ERTU runs eight networks across the country. Moreover, Egypt has had a number of private radio stations since 2003. Of these, Nile FM and Nogoom FM, both based in Cairo, are perhaps the biggest. As with television, ultimate ownership of private radio stations can be hard to determine, and the cost of a licence to set up a new private radio station is even more expensive than to set up a television station. However, radio remains a popular medium in Egypt. Again this is partly due to the fact that radio is more accessible to illiterate people, and also partly to the fact that Cairenes tend to spend a lot of time in traffic each day, which makes for something of a captive audience at certain times of the day. According to a recent survey by the Media Development Programme attached to the US Agency for International Development, correspondents expressed the greatest satisfaction with radio as a medium. Most stations feature a mixture of music and chat, although the ERTU does broadcast cultural channels offering Western classical music, radio serials and the like. A number of stations that broadcast the Koran and religious advice panels are also among the more popular radio stations in Egypt.

LOCAL MEDIA: One area that has seen a lot of growth since early 2011, albeit haphazard, has been local media. Under the Mubarak’s regime, the state apparatus and the economy were very centralised, and the output of the ERTU and publicly owned newspapers still reflects that situation. One ERTU channel is devoted to provincial programming, but the format, where each governorate is allocated a couple of hours, after which it is the next province’s slot, is arguably not so conducive to developing quality programmes and building up a loyal audience.

LOCAL VS. HYPERLOCAL: However, private local stations, known as wasla, have developed over the past few years in Egypt. Based on the same principle as a closed-circuit TV network, the wasla system involved networking a given area, anything from a large block of flats to an entire village. Originally, such networks were set up as a means to split the cost of an expensive satellite connection, but the administrators of such projects quickly realised that in addition to streaming pirated content, they could show their own, such as adverts for small local businesses and wedding videos. Although such initiatives are illegal and often contravene international counter-piracy and intellectual property accords, the popularity of such schemes bears witness to the huge potential demand for local television stations, both from the public and from small-scale advertisers. This has prompted the launch of a number of hyperlocal media pilots. One is El Manzara, a hyperlocal news site; another is Mantaqati, from the Arabic for “my area,” which is a hyper-local paper launched in Cairo’s Boursa district. Covering an area of just three streets, the freesheet aims to cover issues affecting local residents and provide advertising for local businesses. Although Egypt has had freesheets for some time (such as Al Waseet, a classified and small ads paper), until now many small businesses have lacked a way to advertise at an affordable price. In its first issue, take-up of advertising slots in Mantaqati was 25%, with its publishers aiming for 50% for the second issue.

Local press, as opposed to hyperlocal, remains largely moribund. Indeed, Alexandria, a city with a population of 4m people, still lacks its own daily newspaper. In 2010, the independent papers Al Masry Al Youm and Al Shorouq both set up Alexandrine dailies, but both folded within a year. Observers suggest that this was due to a failure to study the market properly and the upheaval of the revolution.

However, since the 2011 revolution, Alexandria has been home to two online radio stations, broadcasting to the city. Of the two, Radio Tram is the slightly edgier, more underground station that is aimed at young people, while Fresca is a little more mainstream. One issue facing online media is that while it is easy to set up and involves fairly low overheads, it is still difficult to persuade advertisers of the ability to reach people using this medium, which means a number of online stations have proved financially unsustainable. This said, Egypt already boasts a mobile penetration rate in excess of 100%, of which about a third already have internet-enabled smartphones. This number is rising exponentially, as with everywhere else in the world, and once everyone has a smartphone, the financial sustainability of online media in Egypt looks much rosier.

SOCIAL MEDIA: In line with this trend, social media continues to see a marked rise in the number of users. For instance, some 30m Egyptians have Facebook accounts, compared to 2m who read a daily paper. After the 2011 revolution, in which Facebook and Twitter were perceived to have played a big role, social media has enjoyed a lot more interest and prestige, especially among young people.

“The role of social media continues to evolve rapidly following its rise to fame during the January 25 Revolution. While it undeniably continues to play a role as a popular organizing tool, it has become a standard part of the arsenal of communications tools used by the state and by the business establishment,” Ghada Hammouda, CMO and head of corporate communications at Citadel Capital, told OBG. “You need to keep in mind, though, that while it is important for activists as a communications and organizing tool at the elite level, social media is still of relatively low importance as a mass communications tool. The penetration rate simply remains too low.“ LOCAL CONTENT: Egypt remains one of the Arab world’s major producers of films and dramas. In recent years, Egyptian content lost out on a pan-Arab level, with Syrian soap operas gaining in popularity over the past decade. Given the country’s political difficulties, however, Syria no longer looks like a competitor for the Egyptian drama industry over the near term; indeed, a number of Syrian production staff have relocated to Cairo over the past couple of years.

OUTLOOK: Egypt’s media is likely to continue to witness rapid change, with new outlets continuing to open but perhaps not nearly as many surviving. Over the long term, the state media looks set to be divided, but it remains impossible to predict when this will happen or what form it will take exactly. New media and the rise of smartphones are likely to stimulate competition, but over the near term content does not look set to shift focus noticeably. As with many other sectors, the industry’s future continues to be tied to the nature of Egypt’s new political settlement.

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The Report: Egypt 2013

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