“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.
“Egyptian journalists used to appear on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya because the channels were the freest in the region,” Mirazi told me. “We knew there are limits, because you can’t talk about the emir or the king, but for us it didn’t matter,” he said. “But now, since Egypt is liberated and the Egyptian media is liberated, there is no excuse for any one of us to accept red lines from another station on their government while we don’t have red lines on our own government.”
Mirazi’s ex-boss, Al Arabiya news chief Nabil Khatib, says the host was using the live show to push his personal agenda. “He blackmailed his own channel,” Khatib claims. Even some of Mirazi’s friends think he was grandstanding. Still, I asked Khatib whether Al Arabiya had done any stories on the topic Mirazi had proposed: the effect of the Egyptian revolution on Saudi Arabia. “Nobody had the chance nor the need to have an hour on air about the possible impact of Egypt on Qatar, nor on Saudi, nor on Morocco,” he insisted. Other news organizations that have tackled such stories would disagree.