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Egypt's State TV At A Crossroads After Mubarak

Change is in the air at Egypt's state-run television. It is no longer the mouthpiece of a dictator, but there's a fight for leadership and editorial direction.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now we turn to Egypt, where a lot has changed since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. For decades, state television was the mouthpiece of the autocratic regime.

Now, Egypt has a democratically-elected president and state TV is at a crossroads, as Merrit Kennedy reports from Cairo.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: The Nile-side headquarters of Egyptian State Television is one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the country. It was a target of protesters during the 18-day revolution that led to the ouster of the Mubarak regime. State TV's coverage of the uprising was mired in controversy.

Rasha Abdulla, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, recalls an infamous broadcast during one of bloodiest days of the revolt.

RASHA ABDULLA: The view is a very peaceful shot of the Nile. It's like, come to Egypt, it's a tourism campaign that they're running on the day when we lost, you know, the majority of martyrs of the Revolution. I mean it was just that - that is unforgivable. That is a crime. You know, I mean that's just not - you don't forget stuff like that.

KENNEDY: Even before the Revolution, state TV had lost credibility as people increasingly turned to private satellite channels. Mohammed Abdel Rahim, a presenter on the English-language news channel, understands why Egyptians are frustrated with state TV.

MOHAMMED ABDEL RAHIM: First of all, the quality is not good. Second, we are perceived unfortunately as the enemies of the Revolution. Or at least, we were perceived like this during the 18 days. Most of us were but some of us weren't.

KENNEDY: Now, Egypt is led by an Islamist, President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization long vilified on the official airwaves and referred to simply as the banned group.

Veteran news anchor Amr Shennawi says it's logical that now, the tone towards Morsi and the Brotherhood has become more positive.

AMR SHENNAWI: Because state media, it's not free yet. It express the people who is running it, and the people who are in charge of the government now is the Brotherhood. So they have all the right to push state media whatever direction they need.

KENNEDY: But Shennawi says he doesn't agree with the idea of state TV as a government mouthpiece.

SHENNAWI: This is wrong as a principle. We need the state media to express the needs of the state itself, the whole people, not some party or some wing or some direction.

KENNEDY: Still, it's not clear exactly how the Morsi government will deal with state media, says Rasha Abdulla.

ABDULLA: I think this is all very new to the Muslim Brotherhood, so they're not yet using it in the exact same way that Mubarak was using it, for example.

KENNEDY: Mohammed Abdel Rahim says that in contrast to the Mubarak era, state TV now sometimes hosts guests who are critical of the government, and airs open political debate among journalists in the newsroom.

RAHIM: So now, the real difference is that you sometimes have polarization between those who are pro-Morsi and those who are anti.

KENNEDY: But state TV is facing serious financial problems.

The bustling control room outside the news studio is shabbier than you'd expect for a key government institution. Several monitors are broken, wallpaper is peeling, the carpets are ragged; subscriptions to newswires have lapsed and haven't been renewed.

ABDULLA: As it is right now, the situation is hopeless.

KENNEDY: Rasha Abdulla says that with 46,000 employees and 23 channels, the building is overstaffed and plagued with nepotism and financial corruption.

ABDULLA: Corruption has been going on for so long that it's a very tightly knit, entangled web of people who are benefiting from that corruption. And so, it is very difficult to remove them.

KENNEDY: The new minister of information, who oversees state TV, has said that he intends to be the last person to hold that post and that the ministry will be dissolved. Both Shennawi and Abdel Rahim hope that will eventually lead to a truly independent public media. But it remains to be seen whether the Morsi government will allow that to happen.

For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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