Monday, July 05, 2010

Egyptian TV talk shows test limit of freedom

Flick through Egypt’s television channels on any evening and you are likely to find a political talk show featuring heated argument about a controversial issue.

The studio guests might include strident critics of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the president, including pro-democracy activists or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned opposition party. Few topics are taboo and the discussion could focus on political ills such as electoral fraud, police brutality or corruption in high places.

“People want to watch the reality of their lives which is conveyed by these talk shows,” said Albert Shafik, channel director of ON Television, whose flagship current affairs programme, Baladna Belmasri, is shown five nights a week. “Even if this reality is dark, they still want to see it.”

The shows have become required viewing for Egyptians. In a country where most avenues for political action remain blocked, television now provides the main arena for debate and sometimes pressure on the government.

Much airtime has recently been devoted to the killing of Khaled Said, a man from Alexandria who was pulled out of an internet café by two policemen and allegedly beaten to death in the street.

Television stations interviewed witnesses who described how police officers had banged Mr Said’s head against the steps of a nearby building and left his body in the street.

The interior ministry first denied wrongdoing, saying that Mr Said had choked on drugs he swallowed when approached by police. The outcry, however, forced the authorities to exhume the body for a new autopsy. Its report confirmed the police story, but activists plan to challenge the findings.

Yet there are limits to this new freedom of expression. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and opponent of the Egyptian regime, was able to join demonstrators when they marched through Alexandria to protest against Said’s death. But Mr ElBaradei told the Financial Times that independent television channels had been banned from interviewing him.

The channels are vulnerable to pressure because their owners have considerable business interests. ON Television belongs to Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom, a partner in Egypt’s largest mobile network. Dream TV, which broadcasts several hard-hitting shows, is part of a property and industrial conglomerate.

“There is a limit to how much we can push on any one issue,” said Mr Shafik. “I do not want to provoke the enmity of the authorities, and at the same time I want to remain effective in the long run.”

The explosion of political debate has yet to give rise to any effective movement. Few people vote in elections or join protests. It often seems that the nightly dissection of the country’s woes merely fuels a general feeling of powerlessness.

“Here in Egypt everyone is talking and nobody is listening,” said Kamal Abbas, a labour rights activist. “It is just a way of letting off steam . . . There can be no mobilisation without the ability to organise.”

The Financial Times- By Heba Saleh in Cairo Published: July 5 2010 16:25

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