Al Jazeera vs Egypt: TV channels bickering

An Al Jazeera spat with Egyptian TV shows up some of the problems of Mid East television.

Egypt has not qualified for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, and the soccer-mad nation is almost in mourning. However, the fans were looking forward to cheering their team on during the almost as important Africa Cup of Nations event now taking place in Angola, west Africa. But to cheer their team on they have to be able to view the games, which is where an untimely squabble has broken out between Egypt’s public broadcaster, the ERTU, and pay-TV broadcaster Al Jazeera Sport.

A report within Al Ahram newspaper, out of Cairo, tells the story: “The Egyptian public had been gearing up to watching the 27th edition of the ACN, depending heavily on the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) to purchase the broadcasting rights from Qatar's Al-Jazeera Sport which owns the exclusive airing rights in the Middle East to the tournament. However, hopes were apparently misplaced after no deal was reached.

Pay-TV operator Arab Radio and Television (ART) had until recently been the exclusive broadcaster of the 2010 ACN and 2010 FIFA World Cup. But late last year and without warning Al-Jazeera obtained the broadcasting rights from ART in a record contract deal worth close to $1.5 billion. ERTU, headed by Osama El-Sheikh, negotiated with Al-Jazeera for acquiring the broadcasting rights for Egyptian terrestrial channels. Negotiations reached a dead end after Al-Jazeera requested a “staggering $10 million a game” said Al Ahram.

After the beginning of the championship the ERTU tried again with Al-Jazeera, bringing the amount down to $9 million, but that too was rejected since the terms of the deal were to broadcast only 10 of the ACN matches of which ERTU would have no say over which ones to choose. In addition, it would have been prohibited to re-run the games. The stipulations also prohibited local commentators.

To the surprise of all, Al-Jazeera decided on Tuesday, January 12, just hours before Egypt's opening match against Nigeria in the African continent's most prestigious championship, to broadcast the game on one of its unencrypted channels on NileSat. Additionally they allowed the Tunisia against Zambia game (last Wednesday, January 13) also to be transmitted free to air. According to Al-Jazeera, the decision was made "to satisfy Arab viewers".

"We are not prejudiced against the local channels -- including Egypt -- and our desire is not to prevent them from covering this tournament," Nasser Al-Khalifi, general manager of Al-Jazeera Sports, said in a press statement. "We offered to sell some of the matches on ERTU for a reasonable price compared to the cost we paid to acquire the rights of the tournament. We received the ERTU's agreement but then they changed their mind after not getting the necessary funding," Al-Khalifi added. "The contacts were redrawn and we offered a lower price in a genuine attempt to conclude the matter in the best possible manner, but the same was repeated."

Al-Jazeera and the ERTU are not on the best of terms, constantly criticising one another in their TV programmes for a perceived bias towards either side. But Al-Jazeera's decision to broadcast at least Egypt's opener against Nigeria may have changed the minds of Egyptian viewers that Al-Jazeera wasn't so bad after all. If anything, the ERTU is being blamed by the Egyptian public for what has been described as its slowness in starting the negotiations.

In a recent statement, El-Sheikh stated that no one will twist Egypt's arm, referring to what he believes to be "ridiculous terms of agreement" imposed by the Qatari channel to allow the matches to be aired on Egyptian terrestrial television. As such, only Al-Jazeera's subscription members were able to watch the tournament on the encrypted channels. Up until Monday, only 24 hours before Egypt's opening game against Nigeria, those who did not subscribe to Al-Jazeera were at a loss over finding another channel to watch the game on.

Al-Jazeera viewers previously paid Egyptian Pounds 120 as a yearly subscription fee to access Al-Jazeera's sports channels, but the price shot up to LE400 because of the ACN. Subsequently, Al-Jazeera's main offices in the Cairo suburbs of Mohandessin and Maadi were inundated with complaints and angry crowds which gathered to subscribe or renew their subscription. A large number of security men were on hand to prevent things from getting out of hand.

"It's the second time that I spend the whole day in front of the company's headquarters to get my subscription card activated. There is no organisation," Hatem Ahmed told Al-Ahram Weekly. "I recently subscribed but they gave me the card without being activated. It took me two days to activate it."

Not everyone can afford the high cost of the subscription and so have resorted to other alternatives, including the illegal connection or shared-cable access, known as the wasla which costs from LE25 to LE35 monthly depending on the district. In less polite circles this is known as signal piracy!

"Football is my main interest," Tamer Abdel-Aziz, a wasla user, said. "I can't miss football matches, but at the same time I can't pay the subscription fees they are asking for. So we have to find other ways to get access and the wasla is one." Even those who chose to watch the match in cafés found that most café managers had raised the fees or minimum charge to cope with the rise in subscriptions. "We knew that the match would not be aired on public Egyptian TV so I decided to watch it with my friends in a café," teenager Islam Essam said. "I was astonished by the increase in the price. Nevertheless, the place was packed."

In the meantime, Egypt's Consumer Protection Agency ruled that Cable Network Egypt will refund subscribers who thought they would be watching the tournament on ART. Ultimately, though, the only ones who are paying the price of this feud are football fans who in soccer mad Egypt make up the bulk of the population. Eleventh hour negotiations allowed the Egyptian public to watch the Egypt 2010 World Cup qualifier against Algeria and the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup. But this time, in Angola, there has been no such last-minute dramatics.