Recent developments in the media sector in Egypt indicate a trend of augmentation through cost-cutting mergers and acquisitions of main satellite TV networks and affiliates of newspapers and websites. A new TV network, DMC, started the process of forging ahead with alliances, leading to a possible merger even before it launches any of its promised channels. It had an initial agreement with the ONTV network, previously owned by Egyptian billionaire Najeeb Sawiris. Transfer of ownership is recent, as it was bought by Ahmad Abu Hashima — another multi-millionaire who made his fortune from steel processing and other businesses. He also has the largest stake in the Egyptian newspaper and website Youm7 that competes with other similar outlets like Al Masry Al Youm, owned by multi-millionaire Salah Diab and others. Two main TV networks, CBC and Al Nahar, have started alliances that may lead to a merger by first augmenting their news operations. Rival private networks like Al Hayat, Dream and Al Mihwar are struggling to survive and might be up for grabs soon. Only Sada Al Balad TV and its website are somehow secure for now, as its owner, multi-millionaire Mohammad Abu Al Aineen, is on good terms with all parties.

There’re many valid explanations for the current activities in the media sector in Egypt, but the underlying justification is not clear. Economic hardships and declining advertisement revenue are reasons to seek cost-effectiveness through alliances and mergers. The phenomena of vulgar ranting, wrongly-called ‘Talk shows’ started losing esteem and are no longer garnering vast audiences as they used to.

Some also argue that the penetration of Egyptian media market by a major outside player, MBC Group — first through its alliance with the Al Hayat network and then on its own by a number of channels (MBC Misr) — ate into the ad inventory, leaving Egyptian competitors with a smaller chunk of the advertisement revenue pie. In general, the business model for many private media projects that started years ago is proving difficult to sustain, coupled with the deteriorating economic situation in the country five years after protests ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.

Yet business is not the only reason behind this, though it is an important factor. It may also be a ‘natural selection’ process to keep the fit and eliminate the unfit in the media market. During the latter half of Mubarak’s rule, the door was opened for private media outlets to mushroom — after long years of the so-called ‘semi-official’ outlets and mouthpieces of weak political parties. TV and radio were mainly government-owned until such time. The group of ‘nouveaux riche’ that became prominent in the Mubarak era sought political influence by establishing their own media outlets rather than using state media. Prominent new millionaires launched their own newspapers, satellite TV stations and websites to exert pressure on their rivals and the government. When the Mubarak regime fell in early 2011, those so-called ‘business people’ opened their media outlets to the rising ‘revolutionary youth’ in a bid to retain their privileges once the Mubarak era ended.

Some owners of private media outlets quickly allied with the Muslim Brotherhood once Mubarak was ousted. But when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, it created its own media outlets, which are now defunct. The only exception was Mohammad Abu Al Aineen who maintained good relations with all.

Meanwhile, the ‘official’ and ‘semi-official’ media outlets are becoming more and more irrelevant. So the government feels the need for new outlets and few are competing to meet that demand.The sad irony is that all these activities, that look business-driven, are not that much concerned about the quality of the profession of journalism and media in general — let alone catching up with the digital age. The deterioration in professional standards goes back to the Mubarak years when politics stagnated and many other aspects of public life started to decay. The opening up of private media by the turn of the century promised a new generation of professional journalists. However, unfortunately, the investors were merely concerned about political influence and ‘business fights’ with rivals, as they used to be called. Hope faded quickly and that generation is the one available in the market now — just enough to maintain status quo, with no hopes of quality journalism in the near future.

Dr Ahmed Mustafa is an Abu Dhabi-based journalist.