CAIRO (Reuters) - Gamal el Adl’s company is one of the most popular television producers in the Middle East. Its gritty soap operas, touching on drug addiction amongst the middle classes, sexual abuse and life in a women’s prison, have been hits on TV in Egypt and across the Arab world.
Until, that is, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi unleashed a new wave of censorship.
In the past three years, the former general has turned the screws on the entertainment and news industries. A new regulatory agency is overseeing output and censoring content. Soap operas, it insists, must contain no sex scenes, no blasphemy, no politics. Police and other authority figures should be presented in a positive light.
El Adl says he thought he could manage by steering clear of the biggest taboos. But when he heard that police had raided the film set of a rival early this year because it lacked a necessary permit, he revised his view. He immediately halted work on the two soaps he was filming, fearing he too would run into trouble for not having a permit.
He couldn’t operate in this environment, he said. “There was just one entity, one eye, one taste, one vision.”
It is President Sisi’s vision – one of heroism and patriotic virtue. And it is being pursued with innovative techniques.
In interviews, program makers, and news media executives described how the Sisi administration has clamped down with controls that they say are stricter than those that existed under Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt with a hard grip until being overthrown in 2011. Many details of the new methods are reported here for the first time.
They include the withholding of filming permits and a list of banned topics for soaps that program makers must agree to. The government has also created two WhatsApp groups that instruct news media what to report, and has placed censors at TV stations to oversee output.
The government is also getting deeper into the entertainment business itself. Since 2017, a new firm called United Group for Media Services has taken control of news outlets, TV production companies and channels - in all, at least 14 so far - giving it unrivalled influence over the TV schedule. United Group has enthusiastically enforced government censorship rules.
A dozen industry and government sources told Reuters that United Group for Media Services was set up by the state. Two of its four board members have links to Egyptian General Intelligence, and one of the company’s units was previously headed by the intelligence chief, Reuters found.
Actors critical of the government say they fear arrest. Program makers say the dramas they make have become bland like an insipid soup. Prime time talk show hosts who don’t fully toe the government line are fired or side-lined. One producer said the authorities have blocked him from working in TV or cinema, without giving a reason.
Khaled Youssef, a member of the Egyptian parliament and a prominent film director, said the government is “interfering in the content of drama” and had pushed out private production firms to exert control. A Sisi critic, Youssef now lives in Paris in voluntary exile. “They don’t want people to think,” he said.
Sisi’s clampdown on entertainment and news comes as his government battles Islamist extremists who have launched deadly attacks against tourists, churches and on the streets of Cairo.
The president’s hold on the media is typical of many authoritarian governments, from China to Russia. Still, the clampdown in Cairo is notable because of its implications outside Egypt. The nation of 100 million is not only the Arab world’s most populous country, it is home to its biggest film industry by far.
Censorship is more oppressive now than under Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule, program makers say. In the final decade of the Mubarak regime, there were productions that grappled with police brutality and homosexuality. Where Mubarak’s censors would approve a soap after sampling just a few episodes, Sisi’s insist on watching the entire series of 30 shows or more.
An editor at a leading newspaper told Reuters that even under Mubarak, publishers only faced intimidation if articles named intelligence or military officers. Now, he said, the chief of the General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, and his officers have firm and direct influence over what the media report. So much, he said, that journalists have begun calling them “Egypt’s editors in chief.”
The Egyptian government, intelligence agency and media regulator didn’t respond to detailed questions for this article. Reuters’ calls to the United Group for Media Services went unanswered.
Sisi’s presidency began on a wave of goodwill in 2014 after he led the military in toppling President Mohammed Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was democratically elected but deeply unpopular by the time of his removal.
Sisi exhorted the media to back his government. Announcing plans to dig a second Suez Canal, a patriotic project on a vast scale, Sisi urged the media to “help us in our fight” to unify Egypt. “It’s a very big fight,” he declared. Delivering a speech to honor the country’s police a year later, he called on the entertainment industry to make dramas and movies that “give people hope and improve our values and ethics.”
By 2016 Sisi’s relationship with the media was deteriorating. In April of that year, the president ceded two islands in a strategic part of the Red Sea to his ally Saudi Arabia, leading to protests. When some newspapers joined the outcry, security forces raided the Cairo office of an organization that represents journalists. Two reporters critical of the government were arrested and charged with spreading false news. It was the beginning of a wider crackdown.
Then, in 2017, Sisi established the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to oversee all news and entertainment. Its drama committee was tasked with monitoring all soap operas on Egyptian television. The council’s head was picked by the president.
The committee has taken a keen interest in moral issues.
In one report, issued this year, it criticized some soaps for their depiction of characters smoking, swearing and “insulting the Arabic language” by using English words. In a one-week period during the holy month of Ramadan, when Egyptian families traditionally come together in the evening to enjoy their favorite dramas, the committee recorded 948 breaches of its code. One series, “Kingdom of the Gypsies,” notched up 105 violations for vulgar language, violence, sexual innuendo and “disrespecting” the Arabic language. Reuters couldn’t determine whether the program or its creators faced any sanction.
News media are under even greater scrutiny. Hundreds of news websites and blogs have been blocked in recent years and a media law passed in 2018 gives the state powers to block social media accounts and punish journalists for publishing what it considers to be false news.
The security agencies created two WhatsApp groups to relay instructions to news organizations about how to cover events. Reuters reviewed messages in both groups. One is called “Editors” and run by the General Intelligence. The second is run by the Ministry of the Interior. Neither the ministry nor the intelligence agency responded to Reuters’ request for comment about the WhatsApp groups.
When 20 people were killed in an explosion outside a Cairo cancer hospital in April this year, an intelligence official wrote: “I don’t want expansion of the coverage of the cancer center incident...limited coverage.” Egyptian media obliged and reporting was limited.
In May, a blast near Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum injured at least 12 South African tourists. The WhatsApp instruction was: “Please wait for the Ministry of Interior statement and don’t add anything to it.” Reuters reviewed the reports carried by four news outlets and found that they were almost identical.
WhatsApp orders also flowed in September, when a former actor called for protests against Sisi in a series of YouTube videos. Mohamed Ali, who lives in Spain, accused Sisi and Egypt’s military of corruption, claims that Sisi dismissed as “lies and slander.”
“Please don’t publish news reports about Mohammed Ali,” said one WhatsApp message. Obediently, media reviewed by Reuters didn’t cover the videos, which went viral on social media, until Sisi mentioned them in a speech two weeks later. Contacted by Reuters, Ali declined to comment.
For staff at TV network DMC, also controlled by United Group for Media Services, the state is intrusive. Before the station can broadcast its news, sports and entertainment programs, its editors need a green light from the plain-clothed intelligence officers who are a constant presence in DMC’s studios, one current and one former employee told Reuters.
The former employee said the network was effectively “run by intelligence officers” who attended executive meetings. Some senior appointments were made by Kamel, chief of the General Intelligence Service, who also set some salaries. A producer who still works at DMC said an intelligence officer sometimes sat in the control room to see what was going on at the channel. Reuters couldn’t reach company management for comment and Kamel, contacted via the Egyptian authorities, didn’t respond.
“The damage that has been done to the Egyptian media is unbelievable, unprecedented,” said Hisham Kassem, a former newspaper publisher and political activist. “It’s easily the worst media disaster in the history of Egypt. They don’t care about quality – if you disagree, they’ll sack you.”
Central to the state’s tightening grip on Egypt’s entertainment industry is a company called United Group for Media Services. Established in 2017, the firm has taken over at least six newspapers and news websites, four TV networks encompassing 14 channels, four radio stations and several theaters and cinemas. Eight people in the media industry who have done business with United Group for Media Services said the company was set up by the state. As it has expanded, United Group has come to dominate the TV schedules and determine which programs make it to air. It has strictly enforced government censorship.
Reuters reviewed documents filed by United Group for Media Services with the authorities since its registration. These documents didn’t disclose the ownership of the company, but they did identify its four board members.
Two intelligence sources told Reuters that two members of the board had links to the intelligence service. One of them, Yaser Ahmed Saber Ahmed Seliem, was previously an intelligence officer. Another document showed that intelligence chief Kamel himself previously sat on the board of a TV firm called D-Media that is now part of United Group. Seliem and Kamel, contacted via the Egyptian authorities, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For program makers like el Adl, the dominance of one big buyer, United Group for Media Services, and the emergence of a strict new regulator made creating and selling dramas increasingly difficult. At the end of last year he waited in vain for his usual filming permit. With time running short, he decided to start work on two soaps, assuming the permit would arrive soon and, if his scripts avoided the taboos of sex and politics, he wouldn’t get into trouble.
“I thought I’d make the programs anyway and if the local channels didn’t buy them then I could sell them outside Egypt,” he explained. But three episodes into filming, police raided the set of a now defunct rival production company. Two police cars pulled up at the shoot and told the crew to stop filming because they didn’t have a license, three crew members and a security source said. The crew complied. El Adl decided to stop filming too in order to stay out of trouble.
El Adl and some other program makers say that, at first, they supported the state’s intervention in the TV market on economic grounds. Many of Egypt’s television channels were unprofitable, partly because they were trying to outbid one another for content. The cost of the soaps made by el Adl and others were rising and actors’ wages were spiraling. El Adl was among those calling for price regulation, he said. The state’s entry into the business has put a lid on wages but the intervention has gone too far. The authorities are now “the ones who decide whether you work or not.”
He is hopeful that 2020 will be a better year. He expects to pick up filming his two soaps, provided he stays within the new budget limits and works within the new system. “We figured out that the authorities were making a framework for people to follow,” he said.
Another director of movies and soaps, who declined to be identified, said he believes Sisi is trying “to control the narrative.” The director said he’d had to sign a document pledging not to include any scenes in his dramas that “insulted” the police. He was told that if there was a shootout, officers mustn’t be seen to die because this would be bad for the force’s morale. The director fell into line.
The president’s efforts risk backfiring, however, this director said. Viewers are increasingly turning to channels operated by Egyptians outside the country, offering shows with alternative views or less censorship, such as Mekameleen and al-Sharq, both based in Turkey. The channels didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Each year, during the holy month of Ramadan, millions of Egyptian families gather in the evening to watch their favorite soaps. But this year there was a difference.
Government officials held a meeting with a group of trusted writers and directors, according to two sources who were briefed on the conversation that took place. The officials set out the themes and ideas they wanted to see in TV soaps, and those they didn’t. They told the assembled writers and directors that dramas shouldn’t show police officers or members of the security services in a negative light, cheating on their wives, for instance.
Many Egyptians complain that Sisi is depriving them even of the right to have fun. Before the president came to power, the Ramadan audience could choose from 40 or more dramas exploring social issues, family relationships, mysteries and crime. The soaps were a cherished part of the holy month, when millions of Egyptians would spend the evenings glued to their television sets.
But during this year’s Ramadan, which fell in May, there were only 25 soaps, 15 of them made by a firm called Synergy, which is part of the United Group for Media Services. Many of the shows showed police officers heroically fighting “evil forces” – a term Sisi uses to describe opposition figures and Islamist militants.
One, called Kalabsh, told the story of a special forces officer who fights terrorists and corruption.
Shows like this, says award-winning actor Amr Waked, underscore how Egypt’s entertainment industry is withering. Waked reached a global audience when he appeared alongside George Clooney in Syriana, a 2005 thriller.
“It’s as if the soaps are written by a police officer,” Waked said.
Waked was last in an Egyptian soap 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. Waked believes he was targeted because of his pro-democracy tweets. The Egyptian government didn’t respond to a request for comment about Waked’s case.
“Throughout my entire life, I have never seen Egypt worse than this,” Waked said.
Reporting by Reuters staff; editing by Janet McBride