Egypt: After formation of media regulatory bodies, lights for press freedom dim
The parliament’s issuance of two laws to regulate the media raises doubts of its efficiency
By Farah Bahgat
In February 2011, former prime minister Essam Sharaf abolished the existence of the Ministry of Information, which was present since the 1980s to govern the media, either by setting the code of ethics or imposing censorship.
Although months later the ministry was reinstated, it was again abolished in June 2014, leaving the door open for legislators to draft a new law to regulate the media in Egypt, which has always faced restrictions.
The ministry was mainly concerned with regulating the work of state-owned media, which now has less audience than before as a result of accessibility to privately owned media and the variety of content they offer.
As the state realised the importance of replacing such a body with another regulator, not one body was established, but three: Supreme Council for Media Organisations (SCMO), National Press Authority (NPA), and National Media Authority (NMA).
However, journalists had doubts regarding the roles of the three bodies, and whether they would work towards the independence of media or against it.
Well known journalist Ragaei Al-Merghani, who was active in terms of press legislation reform, told Daily News Egypt that it was logical to replace the Ministry of Information with such bodies, as the ministry was mainly governing the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), but now the map has changed, and the leading outlets now are the ones privately owned; hence, the presence of the ministry was no longer logical.
Al-Merghani said that the three bodies were created for a certain role: to dominate the media and the press.
“I assume that the role of the three bodies is to modulate the harmony [of the media] with the red lines set by the state,” he added.
The SCMA is assigned to generally regulate media and press affairs, while the NPA, considered as the replacement of the former Supreme Press Council, looks into press-related legislations and monitors the performance of state-owned newspapers on the financial and administrative levels, as well as appoints heads and editors-in-chief of state-owned newspapers.
The NMA’s role is similar to that of the NPA, except that it is concerned with broadcast media rather than print.
The three bodies’ chairpersons were to be chosen by the president and their work would start by a presidential decree.
“Practically speaking, security bodies are who formed these institutions, since the president only seeks assistance from them,” said media analyst Hesham Kassem, who doubted the significance of the role of the three bodies on the ground.
Kassem further questioned the selection of members of the three bodies, which he believed resulted in conflict between them once they started their work, whether about their hierarchy or headquarters.
The establishment of three bodies was stipulated in the 2016 media law thatwas ratified by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in December 2016.
Kassem explained that the seven articles in the Egyptian Constitution about media regulation stipulated the formation of the three bodies. He argued that it should have been just an article to guarantee press freedom and a suitable environment to practice journalism; however, legislators did not consider the constitutional articles enough regulation for practising media.
“No constitution in any developed country includes such details about the formation of media institutions; in fact, developed countries don’t have such regulating institutions,” he said, adding: “By including such articles, the council who drafted the constitution did not leave a chance for legislators to take advice from experts.”
The year. 2016 witnessed several disputes, talks, and compromises regarding press regulations, and by the end of the year, the parliament decided that regulating the media would not require drafting one law, but two instead. The first one—ratified in 2016—was the one that resulted in the formation of the three bodies and was mainly concerned with regulating the organisational structure of media outlets.
One of the three bodies’ main roles was to present recommendations to the parliament about the second draft media law. Local media had reported several conflicts between members of the three bodies.
Earlier in May, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, chairperson of the SCMA presented the finalised memo of the three bodies’ recommendations to the parliament; however, no official statement was issued by the council to clarify the recommendations, according to member of the council’sHatem Zakareya.
“We hear from local media that they presented their recommendations to the parliament. They cannot be taken seriously,” Kassem said.
Furthermore, Al-Merghani said that the law would be of the same texture as the 2016 law.
“They gave the priority to the regulating part and drafted it in the first law so that the three regulating bodies would have a say in the second law,” he explained.
Member of the SCMA Gamal Shawky said that the council presented its vision to the parliament about the draft media law, in which the council is committed to implement the constitutional articles of freedom of expression, reported state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram.
Shawky explained that the council also recommended drafting a law to guarantee the freedom of access to information, except information related to security concerns and private information of citizens.
According to Al-Ahram, the council recommended the establishment of a legal council of members from the three institutions to draft a unified administrative bylaw for media professionals, and asserted the requirement of establishing a media outlet was to notify the council of its content and sources of funding, and no media outlet is to be established or working before receiving a licence from the council.
The council added in the recommendations that dismissal of journalists should not occur until the employer notified the concerned syndicate.
Head of the Media and Culture Committee Osama Heikal announced earlier in May that the draft law is currently in the making and considering the recommendations of the concerned parties, adding that the committee is currently discussing and researching all the related issues and would not be in a hurry to issue the draft law.
Nonetheless, before the parliament decided to draft two media laws instead of one, several media professionals, as well as the Press Syndicate, had worked on drafting a Unified Media Law (UML), which stakeholders considered to be one of the most progressive draft laws, as it guaranteed the press freedom principles that they had been calling for years before.
The process of drafting the UML witnessed several delays and amendments by several parties, as it tackled controversial issues that media professionals faced.
Journalist and member of the legislative committee Hussein Abdel Razek, who supervised this specific law, said in a press conference of the syndicate in 2016: “The law not only cancels imprisonment, but also some crimes related to ‘insulting public officials’, which only exist in Egypt, all of which are crimes that are hard to prove and are often used against press freedom.”
The UML included seven chapters organising press freedom, banning imprisonment in publishing crimes, and criminalising the assault on journalists while doing their jobs, as well as comprising boards of directors of news institutions with elected members rather than appointed members, in addition to specifying new standards for the selection of CEOs and editors-in-chief.
Furthermore, former head of the Press Syndicate Diaa Rashwan, said during the press conference that the UML marked the first time in Egypt’s modern history that laws regulating media were drafted by media professionals rather than the government. However, the UML never saw light.
Al-Merghani said that even the UML represented the minimum of demanded freedoms, as it was a compromise between all concerned parties.
“We should have used the constitutional articles to create a professional atmosphere for journalism,” he added.
“There should not be a media law in the first place; about ten articles in the constitution would be enough because the media should be regulated by the same laws that regulates any other profession,” Kassem explained, arguing that the main objective of media regulating laws is always to silence voices.
Regardless of the UML, the parliament is currently working on the second media law, which would be concerned with regulating practicing media and journalism.
Media professionals have raised concerns about the issues that the draft law should aim to solve, including journalist imprisonment, arbitrary dismissal, press syndicate membership, and financial security.
Al-Merghani said that the basic principles that guarantee a professional atmosphere for journalism should be the main concern for the next draft law, which he believed to be present all over the world.
“Such freedoms do not mean chaos; on the contrary, chaos is a result of bias and interference in media professionals’ work,” he explained.
There have been several conflicts between the state and the press. For instance, security forces raided the Press Syndicate headquarters in 2016; official statements show that there are more than 20 journalists detained; and, recently, the state reportedly blocked a number of local news websites for security reasons.
“The main issue is that the president does not believe in press freedom, and there is no seriousness towards having the type of media that acts as a watchdog over society; they only count on the Administrative Authority Control for that role, and with such a concept, we will need about 3,000 years to develop,” Kassem said, adding that the media performance would soon witness a setback.