"We started big, and we remain big" is the clunky, self-praising but deceptive slogan used by Egyptian television to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its establishment. Egyptian TV is now 50 years old, an occasion loaded with countless memories of past achievements and successes. Yet the overdose of remembrance that associated the drummed up celebration condemns the current standing and prestige of Egypt’s national television rather than honors it.
To cite just one example, the stark differences — in efficiency, popularity and professionalism — between Egypt’s official news channel, Nile News, and Al-Jazeera channel is a microcosm of where Egyptian official media stand today vis-à-vis other Arab channels.
Before the launch of Nile News, Egypt strove to revive the long gone glory days of its media, spearheaded by "Voice of the Arabs" radio channel in the 1950s and 1960s, by introducing Nile TV International (NTI) in 1994. Broadcast in English and French, NTI was slated to become "CNN of the Middle East." Thinking in retrospect, this goal was too ambitious, in fact farcical, given the channel’s limited budget, amateurish personnel and lack of vision. The launch of Nile News in 1998 sought to fill the gap again, particularly after the remarkable success of various Arab news channels, most notably Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.
But why did Nile News fail despite the political weight of Egypt and the long experience of its media machine? And why did Al-Jazeera make it?
First, because Nile News has, since its genesis, been owned and run by the Egyptian state, its freedom of expression has always been curtailed, sometimes to serious levels. As in all dictatorships, news reports must start with highlighting the inane announcements of the president, followed by the "less important" world news, be they the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York, or the start of a new war in the Middle East. Coverage of local news is only concerned with the insignificant, routine activities of Egyptian ministers (like opening a local exhibition, or delivering a mediocre speech at a conference or university). In contrast, anti-government events (demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, etc.), however huge and momentous, go almost unreported. At times of elections, moreover, Nile News shamelessly turns into the mouthpiece of the ruling party. Needless to say, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and harsh critics of the regime are banned from appearing on any of its shows.
Al-Jazeera, in contrast, distanced itself from the state of Qatar from its early beginnings. Its shrewd management was eager to show that it is not subservient to the Qatari leadership; in fact, the channel featured criticism of Qatar’s domestic and foreign policy many times.
Second, being part of a larger political and cultural movement is conducive to the success of media outlets. Egypt has regrettably lost much of the appeal it enjoyed in 1960, when its national television kicked off. Today, its foreign policy is a disgrace, its aging president lacks popularity and charisma, and the Egyptian state does not stand for anything, except the absence of democracy, the breakdown of public services, rampant corruption, and an uncertain future.
On the contrary, for the past few years, the emirate of Qatar — a small peninsula that is 11,437 square kilometers in size, which gained its independence in 1971 — bid higher than its small size and short history would typically allow. It sought to be a regional peacemaker, opened channels of communication with all regional powers (including Israel), and tried to become a model of modernity and economic openness in the Persian Gulf, a la neighboring Dubai. It is within that dynamic and liberal atmosphere that Al-Jazeera flourished.
Third, the basic tenets of professional reporting are routinely trampled upon by Nile News. The morning show includes piteous national songs almost on a daily basis. The management of the channel is driven by mimicry rather than creativity or initiative.
Just like all national channels, Nile News is overstaffed with personnel that are mostly under-qualified and unskilled. In general, the bloated Egyptian TV has turned over the years into a huge bureaucratic organization, and along with that has come red tape, inefficiency, nepotism, the primacy of seniority and corruption.
"If you have connections, you can appear on air in just a week without any training or preparation, even if you are a graduate of household management," a disappointed anchor on Nile News told me.
The few remaining competent cadres, who did not escape to Arab and private Egyptian satellite channels, struggle to make the best of what is possible, but frustration remains overwhelming. An experienced anchor with Egyptian TV confessed to me bitterly that she "feels frustrated every day."
The management of Al-Jazeera, though not ideal, is totally different. From the onset, Al-Jazeera relied predominately on ex-BBC staff, setting the benchmark. From day one, Al-Jazeera provided extensive live news coverage, benefiting from a vast network of reporters placed in the world’s hot spots, including Israel, Iraq and even the mountains of Tora Bora. It also hosted a number of programs that, in an unprecedented move in Arab media, discussed controversial, banned-from-public-debate, taboo issues, in congruence with the channel’s famed slogan: "The Opinion and the Other Opinion." No wonder Al-Jazeera became the most watched Arabic news channel over the course of a few years.
Capitalizing on rules of professional conduct, Al-Jazeera news network, which started with a single channel in 1996, rose to world eminence within the span of five years. If the reporting of the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991 was CNN’s moment of glory, Al-Jazeera’s in-depth coverage of the US-led war on Afghanistan in 2001 was Al-Jazeera’s.
The first half of the slogan reiterated every five minutes on Egypt’s national TV is indeed correct, but the same cannot be said about the second half: Indeed we started big, but we’re not that big anymore.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo. He can be reached at: nael_shama@ yahoo.com.