4 Min Read
* Telecom regulator cancels live broadcast licences
* Critics say move is bound to curtail election coverage
By Marwa Awad
CAIRO, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Satellite broadcast firms in Egypt said the telecoms regulator has stopped them from offering live feeds to private TV channels, a move that government critics see as a crackdown on independent media before a November election.
State media officials said the decision to cancel the feed permits was part of a broader attempt to better regulate independent media and was not a curb on free speech.
Critics said this was bound to hamper reporting in the run-up to the November parliamentary vote and a 2011 presidential election.
"Imposing these 'regulations' now ahead of parliament and presidential elections strongly indicates the state's intention to prevent any broadcasting of political dissent or violations against voters," said Hisham Kassem, an independent publisher.
President Hosni Mubarak, 82, in power for almost three decades, has not said if he will run for a sixth term and no clear candidate has emerged to succeed him.
Channels with cancelled permits must now broadcast directly via studios affiliated with the state-run Media Production City.
"I have had to cancel bookings by Al Jazeera for two units for parliamentary election coverage," said Nader Gohar, owner of satellite feed provider Cairo News Company. "If I go ahead with the booking, I could be jailed. This will definitely shrink the content and coverage of the parliamentary elections."
Before 2004, Egypt's TV and press were limited to government-controlled programmes. Since then, privately owned press and media have sprung up, stimulating more criticism of state policy.
Osama el-Sheikh, director of Egypt's state radio and TV union, denied the latest changes would chill reportage.
"These are measures to regulate the plethora of companies that set up SNG (satellite news gathering) units to offer live broadcast feeds to channels. Many of these companies have neither permits nor licenses," Sheikh told Reuters.
He said any channel wishing to rent SNG units for live broadcast could do so through state television.
Egypt's human rights record has been criticised by allies and international human rights groups who say the authorities use force against voters and political opponents. In a 2005 vote, some 14 people were killed in election-related violence.
"We have been asking for regulation of live broadcast feeds from Egypt for three years, but we expected regulation, not the cancellation of existing permits," said Mohamed Gohar, head of broadcast company Video Cairo.
Michael Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy, called on Egypt last week to cancel an emergency law -- in place since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat -- that critics say is used to muzzle free press, and urged the authorities to uphold media freedom.
"What we don't want to see is that there is a pattern of greater restriction on critical voices, especially in this period leading up to the election," he said in Cairo.