Egypt's State TV Has New Masters, But Old Habits
When Egyptian protesters clamored for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February, State TV journalist Shahira Amin took a bold move: She quit her job, joined the demonstrators and denounced her network's coverage.
Mubarak fled his presidential compound in Cairo on Feb. 11, and Amin and many others believed it would usher in a new era of media freedom.
She soon rejoined Nile TV, the English-language division of State TV, and said she hoped to help reform the agency.
But now, four months after the revolution, Amin and many other Egyptians are finding that it isn't so easy to change the institutions that kept the Mubarak government in power for 30 years.
Mubarak tolerated little dissent, and state television was the unchallenged voice of his government. Critics say that since his departure, the state network has changed masters, but not its methods. Now the network reliably takes orders from the ruling military council instead of the Mubarak government.
In Mubarak's final days, state television anchors denied that hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians had taken to the streets to protest the government's repression and corruption.
State TV talk shows now host opposition figures, including members of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
But Amin said the changes are mainly cosmetic.
"It's the same editorial staff, the same anchors who sang the praises of the Mubarak regime and were part of the propaganda machine," said Amin, who has worked at the network for more than 20 years as a reporter and an anchor.
"It's the same mindset," she added. "They're still waiting for the directives to come, and they do come. They were coming before from the Interior Ministry and from the presidency. Now they're coming from the staff, the Supreme Military Council."
State TV has ignored or played down certain stories, such as violence against Egypt's Coptic Christians, according to critics.
Earlier this month, Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei was barred from appearing on a State TV talk show.
A State TV spokesperson said it was because the opposition figure is a presidential hopeful, and the network is not yet ready to allow appearances by potential candidates.
But after a public outcry, the network backed down.
Top officials at State TV insist that their policy is now more open. But the acting deputy director of Nile News said in a recent interview that the channel should have complete editorial independence from the government.
Pollster Ahmed Nagui Kamha says State TV lost the public's trust because of its role as a government mouthpiece during the revolution.
He says viewers switched to international channels, such as Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, as well as a host of independent Egyptian channels that sprang up after the revolution.
But Kamha, a researcher at Cairo's al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Egyptians have a historical tendency to support whichever government is in power.
Ever since the days of the pharaohs, he said, Egypt has been a conservative society that looks to the government for direction.
"So you need an official channel between the Egyptian people and their government," he said. "It's easy now to let people watch private channels, but still they need to hear from official channels."
Kamha says the challenge now is not to disband State TV, but to reform it so that it reflects the values of a democratic society.