UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Al-Adl Group’s artistic production is one of the most popular TV works in the Middle East. Egypt and various parts of the Arab world.
This remained the case until Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi launched a new wave of oversight.
In the past three years, Sisi, the former army chief, tightened control of the entertainment and news industries. He created a new organizational council to oversee production, and media content came under his control.
The Drama Committee affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Regulation of Information insists that TV series do not include sexual scenes or atheism, and that they do not deal with politics in their subjects. The police and any other personalities representing the authorities should be presented in a positive light.
Jamal al-Adl, one of the company’s founders, says he thought he could do things by steer clear of the biggest issues forbidden. But he changed his mind when he heard that the police had raided the location of the filming of a movie produced by one of his competitors last year, because he had not obtained the necessary permit.
Justice immediately stopped working on two television series he was filming for fear of any problems he might face for not obtaining a permit.
He said, “I felt that this is a climate I cannot work in. I don’t make a mistake.”
He added that artistic production has become a single point of view, “one eye, one vision.”
That vision is President Sisi’s vision, and it is based on the virtues of heroism and patriotism. The authorities use innovative methods to work towards their realization.
In interviews, a number of television production executives and news executives described how the Sisi government tightened its control, which they describe as tougher than the means of control during the era of Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt with a strong grip until he was toppled by a popular uprising in 2011.
This is the first time that many details of these new methods have been published.
One of these means is withholding photography permits and preparing a list of topics that are prohibited to be covered in the series, those responsible for the work must agree to it. The government has also created two groups on the WhatsApp app to direct instructions of what the news media publishes and has appointed censors on TV channels to oversee the broadcast.
The government’s penetration also increased in the entertainment industry itself. Since 2017, a new company, the United Media Services Company, has bought news outlets, TV production companies and TV channels, the number of which is not less than 14, thus giving it unparalleled control over the broadcasting timing of the TV business. The United Company worked actively and diligently to implement the rules of government oversight.
More than a dozen sources in the television industry and in the government told Reuters that the United Media Services Company was founded by the state. Reuters found that two of its four board members had links to the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, and the intelligence director previously headed one of the company’s units.
Representatives who criticize the Egyptian government say they fear arrest. Those involved in the production of the series say that their artworks have become pale, like trivial series. Isolation or marginalization has become the fate of television talk show hosts who do not follow the government approach.
One of the producers said that the authorities prevented him from working on television or in the cinema, without mentioning the reason.
Film director Khaled Youssef, a member of the Egyptian parliament, said that the government “started to interfere in the same dramatic content” and pushed private production companies to stop work to impose their control.
“They don’t want anyone to think,” said Youssef, a critic of Sisi, who now lives in Paris in self-imposed exile.
Sisi’s tightening of control over the entertainment and media sectors comes at a time when his government is fighting battles with Islamic extremists who have launched bloody attacks on tourism, churches and the streets of Cairo.
The president’s control of the media is a key feature of many authoritarian governments from China to Russia. However, the media restrictions in Cairo are important due to its repercussions outside the country. Egypt, with its population of one hundred million, is not only the most populous country in the Arab world, it is also the home of the largest cinema industry in the region, by a large margin.
The authors of the series and programs say that censorship is more disturbing than it was during the rule of Hosni Mubarak Al-Shamuli. In the last ten years of his rule, work was reported on violations of the police and homosexuality.
Producers say that the censors during the Mubarak era were issuing their approval for the series after reviewing only a few episodes, but they insist under Sisi’s rule to watch the entire series, whether it is 30 episodes or more.
The editor-in-chief of a major newspaper told Reuters that during the Mubarak era, publishers faced no intimidation unless the articles dealt with intelligence or military officers. He added that the Director of General Intelligence Abbas Kamel and his officers have tight and direct control over what is reported by the media. He said that the matter reached the point of being described by journalists as “Editor in Chief of Egypt”.
Reuters has not received a response from the Egyptian government, the intelligence service, and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to detailed questions related to this report. Nor did she receive a response to her calls to United Media Services.
– Deteriorating relationships –
Al-Sisi’s presidency began with a wave of goodwill in 2014 after he led the army to topple President Mohamed Morsi, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who assumed the presidency in democratic elections, but his popularity declined sharply until his fall. The army moved to isolate Morsi following mass popular protests against his rule.
Sisi urged the media to support his government. He announced plans to dig a new canal in the Suez Canal in a huge national project, and he told the media, “It is important that you help us in our battle” to unify Egypt. “We are in a very big battle,” he said.
In a speech to honor police officers, Sisi, addressing his speech to workers in the production of dramas and films, said, “We want to give (people) hope in a ball and improve our values and our morals.”
By 2016, Sisi’s relationship with the media was deteriorating. In April of that year, the President handed over two islands at a strategic location in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, which led to protests.
When some newspapers participated in the protest wave, security forces raided the headquarters of the Press Syndicate in Cairo. Two journalists critical of the government were arrested and charged with spreading false news.
It was the beginning of a broader crackdown.
Then, in 2017, Sisi established the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to oversee all news and entertainment outlets. The drama committee of the council was assigned to monitor all series shown on Egyptian TV. Sisi himself chose the council president.
The committee showed great interest in ethical issues.
In a report issued this year, the committee criticized some TV series for depicting characters who smoke or pronounce profanity and contain “abuse of the Arabic language” to use English words.
During one week last Ramadan, when Egyptian families gathered around televisions in the evening to watch their favorite series, the committee registered 948 violations of its charter. One series, “Kingdom of the Roma”, had 105 violations, due to the use of profanity, violence, sexual innuendos and offense to the Arabic language.
Reuters was unable to verify whether the series or its operators had received any penalties.
– “Limited coverage” –
The news media are being subjected to more scrutiny. Hundreds of news websites and blogs have been blocked in recent years, and a new media industry law issued in 2018 allows state authorities to block social media accounts and punish journalists for publishing what the authorities see as false news.
The security services created two groups on the WhatsApp application to pass instructions to news organizations on how to cover the events. Reuters reviewed letters to both groups. One of them is called “chief editors” and is run by the General Intelligence Service. As for the second group, it is managed by the Ministry of Interior.
Neither the Ministry of the Interior nor the intelligence service responded to a request from Reuters to comment on the WhatsApp groups.
When 20 people were killed in a bombing outside an oncology hospital in Cairo last April, an intelligence official wrote, “I do not want to expand the coverage of the Cancer Center accident … limited coverage.”
The Egyptian media committed themselves to this, and their coverage was limited.
In May, an explosion near the New Egyptian Museum in Greater Cairo injured at least 12 South African tourists. The instructions were on WhatsApp “Please wait for the statement of the Ministry of the Interior. Do not add anything to it.”
Reuters reviewed the findings of four media outlets, and their reports were nearly identical.
Orders also poured into WhatsApp in September when a former actor in a series of YouTube videos called for people to take to the streets to protest against Sisi’s rule.
The former actor, Mohamed Ali, who lives in Spain, accused Sisi and the Egyptian army of corruption. Al-Sisi denied his accusations, describing them as “falsehood and slander.”
“Please do not publish any news reports about Muhammad Ali,” said a WhatsApp message.
Obeying the matter, the media reviewed by Reuters did not publish any coverage of Mohamed Ali’s video clips, which spread very quickly on social media until Sisi mentioned them himself in a speech two weeks later. When Reuters called Ali, he declined to comment.
– “Run by intelligence officers” –
The employees of the DMC TV channel of the United Media Services Company believe that the state is interfering in everything.
One of the current employees and one of its former employees told Reuters that the editors need a green light from civilian clothes intelligence officers who are always present in the channel’s studios, before broadcasting any news, sports or entertainment programs.
The former employee of the channel said that the network is “actually run by intelligence officers” as they attend all executive meetings. Some of the appointments to major positions in the channel were made by decisions of Abbas Kamel, director of the General Intelligence Service, and he also determined the salaries of those who held these positions.
A producer still working on DMC said that the intelligence officer sometimes sat in the control room to find out what’s going on in the channel.
Reuters could not contact the management of the company for comment, and Reuters did not receive a full response to the requests it made to the Egyptian authorities.
“The damage to the Egyptian media is unbelievable,” said pro-democracy activist Hisham Kassem, the former owner of a newspaper. It is simply the worst media disaster in the history of Egypt. Quality does not matter to them. And if you disagree with them, they will expel you.”
One of the main tools in tightening the state’s grip on the entertainment industry in Egypt is the group called United Media Services Company. That company was founded in 2017 and has bought at least six newspapers and news sites on the Internet, four television networks that operate 14 channels, four radio stations, a number of theaters and cinemas.
Eight people working in the media industry who had dealings with the united company said that it was the state that created it.
As the company expanded, it became a dominant player in broadcasting TV programs and outlining the work that would come out of it. The company strictly enforces government control rules.
Reuters has reviewed documents directed by the United Company to the authorities since its registration. These documents did not reveal the owners of the company, but the names of the four members of its board of directors were mentioned in it.
Two intelligence sources told Reuters that two of the board members had links to the intelligence service. One of them, Yasser Ahmed Saber Ahmed Salim, was a former intelligence officer. Another document showed that the entire director of the intelligence agency itself was a member of the board of directors of a television company called D-Media that is now part of the United Company.
Salim and Kamel did not respond to a request for comment made by Reuters to the Egyptian authorities.
For series makers such as Jamal Al-Adl, it has become more difficult to produce and sell dramas due to the hegemony of the United Company as a business buyer and because of the emergence of a new and tough regulatory body.
Last year, justice waited in vain for the issuance of the usual photocopying permits. He says he decided for a limited time to start working on two series, assuming that the permits would arrive soon and that he would not face any problems if the scenario in the two jobs avoided issues of sex and forbidden politics.
He said, “I was here or righteous. Even if they didn’t buy anything from me, I was just rubbish.
However, after filming three episodes, the police raided the shooting location of a competing production company.
Three of the crew members in the series whose filming site and security source were raided said that two police cars stopped at the site and the officers asked the crew to stop filming because he had no permission to do so.
The crew complied with the order. Justice also decided to stop filming in order to avoid problems.
Justice and some other operators say they supported the state’s initial entry into the television market for economic reasons.
Many Egyptian TV channels were not making a profit, partly because they were trying to outdo each other by raising the prices of dramas. The cost of the work produced by Jamal al-Adl and other producers was increasing as representatives ’wages swelled.
Al-Adl said he was among those demanding price regulation. The state’s intervention imposed a wage restriction, but the intervention went beyond the issue of prices in stages. Justice said that it is now the authorities that determine who works in artistic production and who does not.
Justice hopes that 2020 will be better than its predecessor. He obtained approval to film the two series on condition that he commit to work without exceeding the new budget restrictions and within the new system.
“What has changed is that we discovered that they were making a framework, a policy or a frame for people to fear,” he said.
Another film and TV director, who asked not to be named, said he also believed Sisi was trying to “control public discourse.”
The director added that he had to sign a document pledging that he would not include any scenes in his actions that involve police abuse. He was told that if he was filming a scene in which there was an exchange of fire, police officers should not die in it, as this would negatively affect the morale of the police officers. The director complied with the order.
This director says that the president’s endeavors may backfire. Viewers are increasingly turning to channels run by Egyptians outside the country that offer other views with less oversight, such as the complementary channel broadcasting from Turkey and the Turkey-based Al Sharq channel.
– Forbidden –
In the month of Ramadan each year, millions of Egyptian families gather in the evening in front of televisions to watch the series they prefer. However, the matter differed this year.
Government officials held a meeting with a group of trusted writers and directors, according to two sources who were briefed on the dialogue that took place. Government officials have identified the topics and ideas they want to feature in TV series and topics they do not want to address.
Officials told the writers and directors that the dramas should not show the police officers and members of them as bad as if someone was a traitor to his wife, for example.
Many Egyptians complain that Sisi even deprives them of their right to enjoy. Before Sisi came to power, Ramadan viewers could choose from 40 or more series that deal with social issues, family relationships, puzzles, and the underworld. And these series were a dear part of the month of fasting.
However, the month of Ramadan, which came this year in May, saw only 25 series, 15 of which were produced by Synergy Company, a subsidiary of United Media Services Company.
In many of these series, police officers have emerged as heroes fighting the “forces of evil”, a term Sisi uses to describe opposition figures and Islamist extremists.
One of these series, the Kalbash series, tells the story of a special forces police officer fighting terrorism and corruption.
Egyptian actor Amr Waked, who has previously won awards, says such works confirm the decay of the entertainment industry in Egypt. Waked reached the world when he appeared in 2005 in (Syriana) with the global actor George Clooney, one of the thrillers.
“The series were written by a police officer,” Waked said.
He was the last Egyptian series in which he performed and confirmed a role in 2017 and he now lives in self-imposed exile in Spain. In 2018, a military court sentenced him in absentia to eight years in prison for spreading false news and insulting state institutions.
Military courts seldom publish the details of the cases they hear.
Waked believes he has been targeted because of his pro-democracy tweets.
The Egyptian government did not respond to a request to comment on the Waked case.
“In my entire life, I did not see Egypt worse than this,” Waked said.
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.
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