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Making Egypt's voice heard
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 09 - 2016

“Many of the overseas services that Egypt has inherited played an important role in Africa and Asia. However, the role of the Egyptian Overseas Service has deteriorated in the light of the general deterioration of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). There has been an absence of development in these services and budgetary problems. Today, some services directed to Africa do not have any tangible effects,” said Dean of Mass Communications at the British University in Cairo Mohamed Shouman.
“There is no clear vision of the role of the Overseas Service and international media in general in the ERTU. As a result, the image of Egypt abroad has suffered despite domestic successes and the target audiences do not listen to the programmes,” he added.
“In the past the Egyptian African radio services aimed at helping the neighbouring African countries gain their independence from their British or French occupiers, using more than 19 languages to speak to them. African leaders would come to Egypt and use these stations to address their peoples, encouraged by late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, with the result that these stations played a major role in liberating many African nations,” commented Ghanaian-Egyptian African affairs expert Gamal Nkrumah.
“After the liberation movements had succeeded, these stations ceased to be political platforms and acquired cultural roles instead.
However, today the stations have decreased in number and only four languages are used, Swahili, Amharic, Hausa, and Somali,” he added.
Chairperson of the Overseas Radio Network at the ERTU Sanaa Selim Shafei said that “at first the slogan of the Overseas Service was ‘friendship between nations, independence and dignity for countries,' later changed to ‘friendship between nations and co-operation between countries.' When the Overseas Service was first started, the target was to support the independence and non-alignment movements in Africa and Asia. The first three programmes, started in March 1953, were the Indonesian, Turkish, and English programmes to South and Southeast Asia.”
In 1954, other programmes were added, including the first African programme, in Swahili, which addressed nations in East and Central Africa. Other programmes followed, like the English services to West Africa and Europe. Today, the Overseas Service broadcasts programmes in 23 languages on 35 stations to all continents.
Shafei said that changing variables had made the stations review their targets on a regular basis. “For example, the Hebrew programme began in 1958 when we did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Our relationship changed after the 6 October War, and we changed the way of writing programmes in Hebrew and of presenting them. Some voices in Israel were demanding peace, so we tried to foster discussion. We have also focussed on the problems of the Palestinians, dealing with events in Israel and in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.”
“The service helps people know the facts, as some people still believe what the Israeli media says even though many things on it may not be true,” she added.
As far as the African countries are concerned, the Overseas Service tries to “highlight the new reality of Africa, a continent full of wealth and manpower and yet having a small trading relationship with Egypt,” Shafei said. “We focus on Egyptian projects in West and East Africa and more recently on the problem of the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. We have common aims and a common destiny with Africa, and it is this that we want to spread,” she commented.
Shafei admitted that the service suffered from many problems, including staff shortages. “We are currently training Russian University graduates to be announcers on the service, and two years ago we recruited Egyptian colleagues who speak Swahili and Fulani. They had graduated from Al-Azhar and are now taking part in recording programmes,” she said.
Some announcers on the Overseas Service also come from foreign countries, especially those speaking languages not taught in Egyptian universities like Indonesian, Somali, Afar, Portuguese and Amharic.
Technological change: “The Overseas Service started at a time when the technologies available were different to those that are now available, causing the service itself to become out of date,” commented professor of Mass Communications Farag Al-Kamel.
“I think the service should re-consider its framework or be closed altogether. The trends of listening and participation of people around the world have changed, and the service needs to change to suit these needs,” he added. There was a need to conduct surveys to find out the preferences of listeners, for example, he said.
Shafei acknowledged these problems and suggested some solutions. “The main problem is short wave, which is not used so much today as it was when the Overseas Service was first started. Our transmission stations are getting old, and they should be redeveloped and renovated. ERTU director Safaa Hegazi has been working on renovating the African stations to encourage people in the continent to listen to us on the radio. We have started to transmit four stations on the Egyptian Radio Website, for example, including the Swahili programme, the Persian programme, the English programme to Europe, and the Arabic programme to Egyptian expatriates in North America.”
“Many Tunisians used to listen to the Cairo radio stations, but after the satellite stations appeared they listened mostly to Tunisian radio stations instead,” commented Ahmed Oueslati, a Tunisian radio presenter, of such technological changes.
“What I have proposed to develop our services and to attract more listeners is to broadcast all programmes online. Our colleagues on the Italian, Russian, and Fulani programmes are broadcasting to Europe on the Egyptian Radio Youtube account, for example. We cannot air them on the same day for staff reasons, but we are making every effort to make sure our programmes reach their listeners,” Shafei said.
“We know that African countries do not pick up Nile Sat signals, but pick up Intel Sat signals instead and can listen to us on satellite television. There are now 23 stations broadcasting on Intel Sat, and we are working on airing others,” she added. The Spanish and Portuguese programmes broadcast to Latin America have started to air their programmes on Youtube. “We also have some programmes in Hebrew and Persian uploaded on Youtube,” Shafei said, and there is a Facebook page for the available services.
“Such Websites must be supported, taking the example of the BBC which has overseas services in many languages served by its Websites. Our sites are in need of renovation and technical support. We need to imitate the BBC,” Shouman commented.
“Before 2005, we had more services, but then 19 of them, including some African and Asian stations, were closed,” Shafei said. The Fulani West African programme, closed in 2006, was re-opened in 2011. The Albanian and Somali programmes were also closed.
Before 2005, there were programmes in Bambara to West Africa, Zulu to South Africa, Ndebele and Shona to East Africa, Hindi, Malay, Bengali, and Thai, but these were closed and never re-opened.
In Asia, the Overseas Service transmits in Persian, Dari and Pashto to Iran and Afghanistan, Uzbek to Uzbekistan, Indonesian, and Urdu to India and Pakistan. There is an English service to the Far East and South Asian countries, an Arabic service to South and East Asia, and a Turkish programme, making up eight languages aired on 10 stations to Asia.
“In Europe, the Service broadcasts in seven languages, including Russian, Albanian, Macedonian, English, Italian, German and French,” Shafei said. There is a two-hour daily programme to Australia, which targets Egyptians and Arabs living in the country and is affiliated to the Asian department.
“We also have four language programmes broadcast to the Palestinian Occupied Territories and Israel. There is a Hebrew programme broadcast for seven hours daily, including one hour in Russian, 40 minutes in English and 20 minutes in French. The Hebrew transmission lasts from 7pm to midnight Cairo time,” Shafei said.
“For Africa, there are 10 services broadcasting in nine languages because there are two English services, one directed to East Africa and another to West Africa, as short wave cannot cover the whole continent. There is a service in French transmitted to West Africa, a Swahili programme, a Somali programme, an Afar programme to Djibouti and some parts of Ethiopia, an Amharic programme, a Hausa programme to Nigeria, and an Arabic service to West Africa for the Arabs living there,” she added.
In North America, the Overseas Service broadcasts two services, one in Arabic for Egyptian or Arab expatriates, and another in English. The Arabic service is called Sawt Masr, or the Voice of Egypt. “We broadcast Sawt Masr at 2:30am, or about 8:30pm US local time. The English service starts at 1:30am and on the West Coast at 4:30am Cairo time.”
“There are four languages broadcast to Latin America, including Portuguese aired to Brazil and Spanish to the other countries. The Spanish programme begins at 3am Cairo time and the Portuguese at 1:30am,” she added.
Despite the fact that most of them are short, the Overseas Service manages to air a variety of programmes. “For Muslim countries, we start with a recital of the Holy Quran, followed by a translation in the language of the transmission. We also broadcast short religious songs. In other programmes, like the European service, we start with music but we also transmit religious programmes, particularly on occasions like Ramadan,” Shafei said.
The service is keen to broadcast these kinds of programmes because they are written by scholars at Al-Azhar and experts in jurisprudence and can give sound information to correct any mistaken ideas about Islam. Items from the Egyptian press are broadcast, focussing on news of bilateral relations on the cultural or economic levels.
“In these programmes we try to convey Egypt's vision of certain issues of concern either in the target area or on the international level.
We also cover cultural events both in Egypt and in the target area to try to bridge the gap between nations. We find that there are more similarities than differences,” Shafei said. Drama programmes are also broadcast, including “On the Banks of the River Nile” which casts light on the achievements of the Ancient Egyptians.
Some services also feature Arabic teaching programmes, such as the “Arabic by Radio” which began in 1966 in English as a way to teach English-speaking people Arabic. “The programme started in Africa, but it was not possible to use African languages as the medium. Today, it is a complete programme for teaching Arabic in three stages, each stage lasting for one year,” Shafei said. It also airs in French, Turkish, Urdu, Hausa, Swahili, and Indonesian.
Listener preferences: “Many of our listeners, especially Africans, Europeans, and Americans, ask for classic Arabic and Egyptian songs like those of Om Kolthoum. Brazilian listeners want programmes teaching Arabic. Latin American and Italian listeners want sightseeing programmes about Egypt and news,” Shafei said.
According to authors Ahmed Kamali and Amr Ibrahim in their book Al-Ezaa Al-Masreya Wa Saboun Am (Seventy Years of Egyptian Radio), the Egyptian Overseas Network was established in 1953. The Service covered the African continent with 17 stations that broadcast for 22 hours 15 minutes each day in 16 languages and dialects. It also covered Asia, Australia, and the Middle East using 16 languages, Europe using six languages, and North and South America using four languages.
“In order to restore the role of these stations abroad they should be renovated and their programmes updated. Though there has been a decline in the stations, their continuity is important. They should also be available on social media,” Shouman commented.
Shafei said that steps were already being taken in this direction. “It is the duty of the official media to combat the hostility the country has sometimes faced abroad over recent years by serving as the voice of the Egyptian people. The western media sometimes broadcasts false news and mistaken ideas about Egypt. So it is our duty to present the correct image. For example, we have broadcast a programme called ‘A Popular Revolution, not a Military Coup' about the 2013 Revolution,” she said, adding that the Overseas Service had also worked to expose the reality of the terrorist movements that may find channels presenting their views in other countries.
“The Overseas Service should think outside the box in order to survive competition with rivals like the Internet and television,” Al-Kamel said. “It should think of what benefits it gives listeners and feedback from them. It should look at the numbers using the Websites and see who interacts with the services and their preferences. The service started 50 years ago, and technology has changed. It should adapt to the new technology,” he said.
According to Shafei, the Overseas Service today had two main targets, the first of which is to attract more visitors to Egypt by broadcasting programmes about events like festivals and the country's monuments. The second aim is to help attract more investment to Egypt by explaining the country's potential.
“In the agreements we try to reach with overseas radio stations we are keen to include items about sightseeing in Egypt and the other country as well,” she said.
“We want all our programmes to be broadcast online and the short wave stations developed. We want correspondents in the target countries and more people who master the languages of the programmes as we have a shortage of staff who master English, French, German, Italian, and Russian.”
“I would like to see a Portuguese ‘Arabic by Radio' programme. I would like to see people across the world listening to Egypt's voice, and Egypt's voice being loud and clear enough to reach everyone in the world,” Shafei concluded.

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