April 3, 2008 / 7:02 PM / 11 years ago

Egypt satellite drops critical London-based channel

CAIRO (Reuters) - Satellite operator Nilesat, partially owned by Egypt’s government, has dropped a London-based station that has criticised Egyptian policies, the station said on Thursday.

Human rights and media groups condemned Nilesat’s move and said it could signal a crackdown on media freedom.

Nilesat’s removal of Al-Hiwar comes less than two months after Arab governments, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, adopted a satellite charter entrenching state control over airwaves in a region of some 300 million people.

“We discovered suddenly on the night of April 1 they terminated our transmission,” Al-Hiwar Managing Editor Azzam al-Tamimi told Reuters. “Nilesat did not want to give an explanation.”

Al-Hiwar broadcasts a weekly show on Egypt that criticised the Arab country’s position on issues including the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the government’s treatment of detainees, Tamimi said.

“We constantly criticise Egypt and other Arab governments for their failure of policies,” he said. “Egypt has so many problems you cannot talk about it without criticising the government.”

Tamimi said the station, which he said was independently owned, had grown popular in Egypt and Saudi Arabia since he founded it in 2006.

Nilesat and Egyptian government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

PRESSURE ON BROADCASTERS

The Arab charter bans airing material seen as undermining “social peace, national unity, public order and general propriety”, as well as criticising religions or defaming political, national or religious leaders.

The charter says a host government can suspend or revoke the licence of a broadcaster that violates the rules.

“This is the first decision since the signature of the charter and we fear there will be more coming,” said Hajar Smouni, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East and North Africa desk.

“We have no doubt the government has the ability to pressure companies like Nilesat to make them remove stations that bother them,” she told Reuters.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 146th out of 169 countries in its latest report on world press freedom, it said.

In a recent case that drew criticism from rights groups, an Egyptian court sentenced newspaper editor Ibrahim Issa to six months in jail with labour last month for publishing false reports about President Hosni Mubarak’s health, but let him go free pending appeal.

“The decision to drop Al-Hiwar is not an isolated incident,” said Gasser Abdel Razzak, director of regional relations at Human Rights Watch in Cairo. “It is coming in a context where freedom of expression is being attacked by the state in Egypt.”

Al-Hiwar, which had a contract with Nilesat through British firm GlobeCast, has begun broadcasting on another satellite that covers 70 percent of the area reached by Nilesat, Tamimi said.

He said lawyers for the station were considering legal action against Nilesat.

Editing by Caroline Drees

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