On day two of the Egyptian uprising, the staff of Cairo’s privately owned satellite channel ON-TV gathered to discuss strategy. ON-TV was founded in 2008 by Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian telecommunication mogul, as a current-affairs spin-off of his successful entertainment channel. Yosri Fouda, host of the nightly talk show, Akhir Kalam (The Last Word), had just met with the station’s program chief. Fouda was one of the Arab world’s most respected television journalists. He had made his name as Al Jazeera’s chief investigative correspondent and was best known in the West as the reporter who interviewed the masterminds of 9/11. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to destroy everything I did in my career by appearing on TV and be a parrot. At the same time, I won’t be upset if you want me to take a break.’ ”
But his boss told Fouda he did not intend to self-censor. The team developed an aggressive strategy for coverage of the uprising and brought it to Sawiris, warning him that if they took this approach, ON-TV could be shut down. “To his credit, Naguib said, ‘Guys, if you think we can do this professionally, then I don’t care if we get shut down,’” Fouda recalls.
While Al Jazeera and other regional satellite channels received most of the attention in the West, ON-TV and Dream-TV, another Egypt-based private satellite channel, played a major role in bringing the voices of the revolution to the Egyptian audience. Like other Egypt-based channels, ON-TV and Dream were prohibited from running news programs by the Mubarak regime. Instead, they focused on current-affairs discussion programs. So while the regional channels concentrated on live coverage from the street, these channels were bringing into the studio all of the key figures involved in the revolution, giving context and depth to the unfolding events. This was a level of analysis that might have been lost on viewers in other parts of the region, but was critical for Egyptians trying to understand the subtleties of their unfolding future.
“Dream, at the beginning, was playing both sides of the fence,” says Hani Shukrallah, editor of the English-language Ahram Online. “But they jumped over completely once it was clear the revolution was winning. ON-TV from the start was a breath of fresh air.” Westerners who followed the Egypt story are likely to recall the memorable clip of Google executive Wael Ghonim breaking down in tears when he was shown pictures of Egyptians who died while he was in jail. That moment occurred during an interview with Dream’s Mona el Shazly.
Naila Hamdy, a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo, observes that Egyptian private satellite stations became stars during this period—and the effect continues. These channels are becoming an integral part of the nation’s suddenly complex political conversation as Egypt moves toward its first truly free elections.
In fact, there is a strong potential for independent, nationally focused satellite channels, like those in Egypt, to one day supplant regionally focused channels, such as Al Jazeera, as viewers in individual countries look for those outlets that provide news about events down the street, rather than on the other side of the Arab world. The criticism of the pan-Arab channels has long been that they often focus myopically on broad regional stories like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iraq, while they ignore bread-and-butter local issues. In a candid self-assessment, Nabil Khatib of Al Arabiya says the quality of reporting and relative freedom are what gave the pan-Arab stations their audience, but “once those local stations become more free and learn how to be better in terms of professional standards, we will lose.”
Whether the pan-Arab channels have more freedom than their newly unshackled nation-based competition is already in question. As he wrapped up the February 12 edition of his program, Studio Al Qahira (Cairo Studio), the host, Hafez Mirazi of Al Arabiya, told his viewers that the following day’s program would focus on the implications of the Egyptian revolution for Saudi Arabia. He did not make this announcement lightly. A former Washington, DC, bureau chief for Al Jazeera, Mirazi had left that network complaining about what he saw as a news agenda manipulated by the Qatari government. Now he was hosting a program on Al Jazeera’s main rival, owned by businessmen close to the Saudi royal family. Mirazi knew he had traded one master for another.
But, he told his viewers, the discussion of potential Saudi unrest was a test. “If we can do that, then Al Arabiya is an independent channel. If not, I bid you farewell and thank you for watching our show.” Mirazi was never put back on the air.