When Reem Maged, a TV talk show host, returned to Egyptian screens after a two-year absence with a weekly programme focusing on high-achieving women, she did not imagine that it would ruffle any feathers.
But after only two episodes were aired the programme was dropped by ONTV, the channel owned by Egyptian telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris. Ms Maged, who has a reputation for challenging the authorities on issues of rights and freedoms, said she was told by channel officials they had come under pressure from “sovereign entities” — code for the security services — to take her off air.
“I refused in the past two years to work for any non-Egyptian channel,” Ms Maged said in a recent television interview. “But I have now discovered that I am banned from [Egyptian channels.]”
Although Mr Sawiris insists that falling advertising rather than official interference led to the programme’s demise, Deutsche Welle, the programme’s co-sponsor, issued a statement denouncing what it described as “the interference of the Egyptian authorities” to stop the show.
In the wake of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, lively and often raucous current affairs shows became immensely popular with a public newly engaged in politics, and presenters like Ms Maged became stars. But a relentless crackdown on dissent has targeted both Islamists and secular activists since former president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, and it is now influencing what Egyptians see on their television screens.
Political talk shows are no longer a forum for lively debate and have lost viewers; instead there is a rise in sensationalist fare, with programmes focusing on sex scandals and the supernatural.
“We can say with confidence that political talk shows have lost fifty per cent of their viewers in comparison to last year,” said Amr Kais, Egypt manager of Ipsos, the market research company. “There has been a significant shift from political talk shows to other format programmes.”
He attributes the fall to a popular loss of interest in politics arguing that viewers watched in the past because they were driven by “anxiety” over the frequent tumult, but now they find talk shows “monotonous.”
As the space for debate has become more constricted, political programmes tend to present a single, pro-regime message, with presenters often vilifying government opponents. One programme on a privately owned channel plays the secretly recorded phone calls of activists and political figures in an effort to smear them. Another popular genre sees guests described as “security experts” discussing foreign and domestic conspiracies to undermine Egypt. Tamer Amin, a well-known host, recently scolded citizens who complain about high prices and power cuts and told them on air they should take “take their passport”, leave the country and “get lost”.
The highest profile casualty of the closure of the airwaves to critics is Bassem Youssef, the satirical presenter who modelled his programme on US comedian John Stewart’s The Daily Show. Mr Youssef mercilessly lampooned the country’s Islamist politicians before 2013, but fell foul of the government of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and his programme was cancelled.
Even those with a lower profile have felt the heat. Dina Abdel Rahman, an independent-minded talk show host who has not worked since her contract with the privately owned CBC channel ended a year ago, said that during her final months on air she faced a number of pressures, including vocal criticism and social media campaigns aimed at undermining her professional integrity. Her onscreen presence had become “unwanted” by the authorities she said.
‘There was more freedom even before the revolution than there is now, which is one of the ironies of fate,” she said. “But I also think that now even people who are supportive of the regime are annoyed at hearing just one point of view.”
Fatma al-Issawi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics who has been studying the media in the Arab countries which had uprisings in 2011 argues that political programmes in Egypt have become “the populist voice of the regime,” with television figures often shunning objectivity in order to play what they present as a “patriotic role” defending the country.
But with chat shows failing to retain viewers’ attention, channels have also been forced to resort to sensationalist content in a bid to try to keep up the figures, said Mr Kais.
“This is what explains the strange things we see on television like all the stories about ghosts and sex,” he said. “It is an attempt to bring back the people lost by the talk shows.”