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memri
November 30, 2010 No.
3412

Reactions to Closure of Satellite TV Channels

Twelve channels carried by the Egyptian satellite network Nilesat, which is owned in part by the Egyptian government, were recently shut down – among them Islamist, entertainment, family, and alternative medicine channels – while letters of warning were sent to 20 others.[1] The week before, four Nilesat channels, among them Al-Nas TV, were shut down, and two, including Al-Fara'een TV, received warning letters for alleged contract violations.[2] In addition, the Islamist television channel Al-Rahma TV reported that its broadcasting had been suspended.[3] Since then, some of the channels have come back on the air.[4]

Nilesat's management explained that the channels had been suspended temporarily until they complied with the terms of their fixed contracts, which stipulate that their programming must respect the principles of the monotheistic religions and the traditions and customs of Egyptian society, and that it must avoid instigating sectarian or interfaith strife. Egyptian Information Minister Anas Al-Fiqi said that the measures taken against the channels – both the extremist and the overly permissive ones – were intended to preserve the moral fabric of Egyptian and Arab society and to ensure responsible media reporting.[5]

Salafi-jihadi forums and websites posted the conditions that had been set for the renewal of the channels' broadcasting: avoiding the topics of Christianity and Shi'a and any content likely to spark fitna (civil strife) or spread extremism; cutting religious programs to less than 50% of the broadcasting schedule, and removing all programs on fatwas or alternative medicine; avoiding discussing or even mentioning Al-Azhar; allowing women to appear on air; program hosts must be beardless.[6]

Restrictions were also imposed on the Egyptian press. In early October 2010, the Supreme Judiciary Council banned the broadcasting of footage or images of court proceedings.[7] Limitations were also imposed on media companies' use of text messages (SMS). Under new regulations, all media establishments must obtain permission from both the Communications Ministry and the Supreme Journalism Council before sending out news text messages over the cellular networks.[8] Additionally, in light of a recent flare-up in Muslim-Copt tensions, the Egyptian regime has pressured the media to promote national unity by steering clear of content likely to exacerbate interfaith strife.[9]

The closure of the channels was met with mixed reactions in Egypt and the Arab world. Those in favor explained that the channels in question had incited to extremism and hatred and exacerbated interfaith (i.e., Muslim-Copt) and sectarian (i.e., Sunni-Shi'ite) tensions.[10] On the other hand, oppositionists claimed that the closure was a political maneuver intended to minimize the opposition's chances in the October 28, 2010 parliamentary elections. Other protested that the shutdown undermined freedom of expression, and that extremism and intolerance on satellite TV were not created by the channels but only reflected the climate in Arab society. They called for these phenomena to be combated in other ways.

Following are a number of reactions on this issue:

Supporters of the Closure: Freedom Requires Responsibility and Restraint

Al-Ahram Editor: Freedom of Expression Has Its Limits

Osama Saraya, editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, expressed support for the closure of the satellite channels, and rejected claims that this measure was in any way connected to the elections: "Those mourning the freedom [of expression] are ignoring [the fact] that it comes with a responsibility. There is no such thing as unlimited freedom, endless freedom, or freedom without responsibility...

"The elections are not the reason for the closure of channels that have made a habit of spreading deception and superstitions, and flooding the public with delusions... The elections have nothing to do with [the shutting down of] channels that do not serve the purpose for which they were established. It is not due to the elections that channels were warned to stop [broadcasting] advertisements selling delusions and swindling the public. It is not because of the elections that [some] channels were shut down and others warned, [but because they] had gotten used to disseminating extremist ideas and inciting to hatred of the other... Many of the Arabic satellite channels reached the lowest level of media [professionalism]...

"The dangers to Egypt's security and peace are no longer hidden from anyone; [they clearly stem from] the deeds of some satellite channels and their treatment of some of the events in Egypt – especially those having to do with the relations between the twin pillars of the [Egyptian] nation – the Muslims and the Copts... The Arabic satellite channels are twice as dangerous as the foreign channels. They have made the ether a war zone of [conflicting] thoughts, beliefs, and cultures, with all the danger that this poses to the security and peace of [our] societies... The ether has become a chaotic arena with hundreds of channels, and no one knows why or how they appeared, or who is behind them..."[11]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Editor: The Satellite Channels Are Dens of Extremism

Tariq Al-Homayed, editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote: "Bravo to [Egyptian Information] Minister [Anas Al-Fiqi], for courageously fighting to reorganize the satellite channels, which had lost all sense of discipline in Egypt... Closing them and reorganizing their activity is essential, because [they] almost [succeeded in] undermining social peace and stability... The media [should not be] a platform for disseminating vice, lies, and backward notions. Freedom [requires] responsibility and restraint, but the Arab media is recklessly irresponsible, [allowing idle] coffee-shop chat to make the front pages of newspapers and the news and talk shows. [Furthermore,] the satellite channels have become dens of extremism. The media, which for some time, like education, elevated our stature and opened our eyes to the world, has [now] plunged us into unprecedented depths in the name of freedom. Should Egypt have waited until it came to this?..."[12]

Opponents of the Shutdown: It's an Attempt to Gag the Media

Opposition Movements: The Media Closures Are Aimed at Diminishing Our Chances in the Elections

Egyptian opposition movements, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, said that the closing of channels and other steps recently taken to constrain the media were part of a campaign by the Egyptian authorities to stifle diversity of opinion and diminish the chances of the opposition forces in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, making it easier for Mubarak to pass the presidency to his son.[13]

In an article posted on the Muslim Brotherhood website, Dr. Hassan Al-Haywan wrote that the main goal of the shutdown was to gag the Muslim Brotherhood: "The government arrested a group of Muslim Brotherhood leaders as soon as they announced their intention to participate in the elections. Afterward, the government suspended the broadcasting of many Sunni channels, such as Al-Nas TV, but did not shut down a single Shi'ite channel, or the channels that attack the Koran and the Prophet of Islam, or those that call for permissiveness and immorality. Some think that this is due to American dictates and to pressure from the Orthodox Church to stem the Islamic tide. This sounds true but is in fact not accurate. Sure, there are constant dictates and pressures, but the decision [to shut down] these channels specifically and at this point in time is linked at its foundations to the November 28, 2010 election date... Elections on this date mean... the perpetuation of the siege on the Islamic political stream that operates by peaceful means – not because it is Islamic, but because it is the popular movement of the masses which represents the identity of the people..."[14]

Channel Spokesmen: We Will Find Other Ways to Stay on the Air

At a conference on the issue of media closures organized by the Freedoms Committee in the Egyptian Journalists Union, Islamist preacher Dr. Safwat Hijazi, a host on Al-Nas TV, said that Islam would not be harmed by the shutting down of a few media platforms, since Islam does not prosper because of these channels but because of itself. At the same time, he stressed that the channels closed down for no clear reason, and promised: "[They] will renew their broadcasts in other ways, under different names and on different satellites, and their number will [only] grow, so that the Egyptian authorities will not be able to contain them..."[15] Sheikh Muhammad Hassan, director of the Nasaem Al-Rahma channel, which was established after the closure of Al-Rahma, likewise condemned the "policy of gagging [the media]" and promised that his channel would renew its broadcasts from outside the country."[16]

Alarabiya.net Editor: Shutting Down Channels Conflicts with Freedom of Expression; It Will Turn Their Owners into Martyrs

Daoud Al-Shiryan, an Al-Hayat columnist and editor of the Alarabiya.net website, wrote: "The solution is not to shut down channels. This not only conflicts with freedom of expression, it turns the channel owners into martyrs. They are likely to find use this conflict as a means to perpetuate their legitimacy and their role... The religious channels have become a fact on the ground, [and] it will be difficult to dismantle them by force. The solution is to find a practical alternative. The right way to start stemming the tide of religious channels is to address Islam, and issues that concern the Muslims, on the public channels... [Furthermore] the focus should not be on Islamic channels, but rather on all the religious channels. This matter necessitates brave leaders of public opinion, of the caliber of [prominent Medieval scholar] Ahmad bin Hanbal,[17] who stood up to the fitna [civil strife] over [the notion of] the Koran's creation.[18]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Columnist: Shutting Down Satellite Channels Will Not End Fitna

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Diana Muqallad wrote: "Is closing down religious satellite channels and a few websites, and monitoring text messages on mobile phones... [really] the way to end [sectarian strife]? The answer is clearly 'no.' Closing or banning [religious channels] is not the solution. The chaos that prevails on our channels and in cyberspace is a direct result of phenomena that we have tolerated and allowed to grow for decades.

"They say that these religious channels have sparked sectarian and religious conflict; that may be so. However, these tensions existed before the advent of satellite television... These satellite channels only reflect the political and social situation on the ground. Would channels with such odious content manage to draw so much public interest if it were not for the poor state of democracy and civil [rights] in our [Arab] countries?...

"In some [Arab] countries politics have been allowed to follow religious lines, contrary to [the principle of] citizenship. Political Islam has yet to establish a clear position regarding non-Muslims, and our countries continue to ostracize minorities and still fail to recognize women's rights. And yet now we [are blaming] the satellite channels, after many states turned a blind to them, or in some cases even exploited them.

"Fitna will not disappear with the closure of these satellite channels, if that is indeed the intention. Those who have turned a blind eye to the stream of fatwas and terrifying irrationality which has flooded our societies, which stifles [all] critical thought and intensifies fanaticism and hatred, bear a greater responsibility [for the situation] than the satellite channels themselves."[19]

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 20, 2010.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 13, 2010. To view clips from Al-Fara'een TV and Al-Nas TV, see MEMRI TV Clip No. 2567, "Al-Fara'een TV Owner Tawfiq Okasha Quotes Hitler: 'Give Me the Weapons and Brains of Germany, Along With the Soldiers of Egypt, and I Will Completely Rule the World,'" October 7, 2009, http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/2567.

[3] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 21, 2010. Regarding previous suspensions of this channel's broadcasting, see MEMRI Special Dispatch Special Dispatch No. 3023, "Al-Rahma TV Tries to Deceive French Regulator, After Being Banned from Broadcasting on Eutelsat Satellite," June 11, 2010, Al-Rahma TV Tries to Deceive French Regulator, After Being Banned from Broadcasting on Eutelsat Satellite, MEMRI Special Dispatch No.3071, "Egyptian Columnist in Support of Ban on Al-Rahma Channel: Al-Rahma Does Not Conduct Da'wa, But Rather Incites the Masses Against Non-Muslims," June 30, 2010, Egyptian Columnist in Support of Ban on Al-Rahma Channel: Al-Rahma Does Not Conduct Da'wa, but Rather Incites the Masses Against Non-Muslims.

[4] It should be noted that the Al-Rahma, Wassel, Safa and Ahl Al-Beit channels went back on the air, in various guises, shortly after being closed down. On November 27, 2010, Egypt's Administrative Court officially overturned the decision to shut down the channels Al-Badr, Al-Hafez, Safa, Al-Rahma and Wassel, but approved the closure of the other channels. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 28, 2010.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 20, 2010.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 5, 2010.

[8] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 12, 2010.

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 28, 2010. Another press-related incident involved Ibrahim 'Isa, until recently the editor of the leading oppositionist Egyptian daily Al-Dustour, who was dismissed by the newspaper's board of directors and shareholders, just weeks after the daily was purchased by Egyptian businessman and head of the Al-Wafd party Al-Sayyed Al-Badawi. Prior to that, a show hosted by 'Isa on the ONTV channel was taken off the air. A speculation has been raised that behind 'Isa's dismissal and the purchase of the daily was a conspiracy between the Egyptian regime, the Egyptian Journalists' Union, and the daily's shareholders to silence oppositionist voices. Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 5, 2010; http://arabia.reporters-sans-frontieres.org, October 7, 2010; Al-Hayat (London), October 6, 2010.

[10] On the recent escalation in inter-religious tensions in Egypt, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.646, "Rising Tensions between Muslims, Christians in Egypt," November 15, 2010, Rising Tensions between Muslims, Christians in Egypt.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 22, 2010.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 24, 2010.

[13] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), October 25, 2010.

[14] www.ikhwanonline.com, October 28, 2010.

[15] www.ikhwanonline, October 26, 2010.

[16] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), October 20, 2010.

[17] Ahmad bin Hanbal (780-855 CE) believed that the Koran was eternal and opposed the Mu'tazilah, who held that the Koran had been created by Allah at a certain point in time.

[18] Al-Hayat (London), October 17, 2010.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 21, 2010.