One, two, three, four media laws: How media legislation in Egypt is staging state control
A unified media bill drafted by an independent committee has been divided into separate bills, a move which has raised concerns about compromises on media freedoms
 
 
 
Courtesy: Basma Fathy
 

Parliament’s media and culture committee passed a bill regarding the formation of media regulators on Monday.

While a unified media law has long been anticipated in Parliament following several rounds of drafting, amendments by the government and a specialized media committee, the bill has seemingly been divided into several parts, causing tension among legislators.

Proponents of the divided bills believe they will usher in a new era of media practice in Egypt, but critics say the diversion from a unified bill changes the scope of the law, leaving media regulation up for grabs.

Moataz al-Shazly, a member of the culture and media committee in Parliament, stated in an interview with Mada Masr last week that the divided bills “will be a gift from the parliamentary committee for culture and media, to the Egyptian people. These laws will initiate a qualitative leap in media performance.”

However, Salah Eissa, secretary general of the current Supreme Press Council, holds a different view.

Two years ago, Eissa was part of a national committee formed to draft media laws. It was made up of approximately 50 journalists and media figures representing the Journalists Syndicate, the Supreme Press Council, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, the General Union for Printing and Publishing Workers, along with various state and privately owned media outlets, trade unions and legal experts.

The committee held close to 150 sessions, which led to the drafting of two proposals translating media-related constitutional provisions into laws, which were presented to the government.

One of those two proposals was the unified media law, which includes regulatory measures for state-owned, partisan and privately owned media institutions. The draft law also covered the formation and regulation of the three media organizations mentioned in the Constitution. The second proposal addressed the cancellation of all provisions which infringe upon freedoms in cases related to publishing.

Egypt’s Constitution mandates the formation of the three media regulators. Article 211 stipulates the formation of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council, which will be responsible for “regulating the affairs of audio and visual media, printed and digital press and other media forms.” Article 212 outlines the formation of the National Press Authority, which will manage and develop state-owned press institutions. Finally, Article 213 orders the formation of the National Media Authority, which will manage and develop state-owned visual, audio and digital media outlets.

“The committee concluded its work last May,” according to Eissa, who confirms that they sent a single unified media bill to the government, which passed it to the State Council for review.

After the State Council submitted its comments to the government in mid-November, Judge Magdy al-Agaty, state minister for legal and parliamentary affairs, announced that the government would send the draft law to Parliament after dividing it up, as per the Council’s recommendations.

Agaty elaborated that the State Council, which reviewed the technical and constitutional aspects of the draft law, recommended its division in accordance with the Constitution so that it would not be contested on the basis of unconstitutionality.

In comments made following Monday’s decision Mostafa Bakry, member of Parliament’s media and culture committee elaborated on the reasoning behind the division. He said that constitutionally, the regulatory bodies should be consulted on media related legislation. As such, he said, it made sense to pass bills pertaining to them before moving onto the bill regulating media practice.

However, Professor of Constitutional Law Shawky al-Sayed highlights that Egypt’s Constitution doesn’t actually stipulate that the authorities be formed first, only that they should be consulted if they already exist.

“There are people within the government, Parliament and the media community who believe that the law drafted by the national committee of media legislations is more democratic than it should be. Those people believe that the state is in a war against terrorism and that the media should be used as a weapon in that war.”

Eissa’s concerns about this divided process stem from a fear that the draft law relating to the formation of the media regulators will be passed, as per constitutional requirements, but the drafting of legislation for the formation, ownership and management of media outlets, and the bills related to media freedoms, will be left in the hands of these bodies themselves.

Osama Heikal, head of the media and culture committee in Parliament, stated that the law regulating media practice is next on the committee’s agenda. However, Eissa argues that this is no guarantee they will actually pass the bill.

He states: “There are people within the government, Parliament and the media community who believe that the law drafted by the national committee of media legislations is more democratic than it should be. Those people believe that the state is in a war against terrorism and that the media should be used as a weapon in that war.”

This is not the first bump in road for the drafting process.

After the committee submitted the draft to the government in May, the latter amended it before passing it on to the State Council. In response, the Supreme Press Council and the Journalists Syndicate issued two statements in July calling for a return to the legislative provisions they had agreed on with the government.

The Journalists Syndicate said that it had reached a consensus with the government regarding some provisions in the draft, which were later amended and deleted. In a memo sent to the State Council it affirmed that it demanded “a return to those provisions which are in accordance with the text, philosophy and provisions of the Constitution to ensure the stability of media outlets and help them fulfill their role in serving the country and citizens.”

At the time Yehia Qallash, head of the Syndicate, said that the amendments made by the government were related to the formation of the regulatory bodies, increasing the influence of executive authorities.

The government’s amendments, according to Qallash, also included permitting pre-trial detention in publishing crimes, and removing the provision prohibiting the search of offices and homes of journalists.

Eissa also worries that the division of the unified media law into several bills will mean reversing the cancellation of repressive penalties in publishing crimes.

He explained that annexed to the unified media bill was a draft concerning the cancellation of penalties which limit freedoms in publishing crimes. The drafting of this bill is in accordance with Article 71 of the Constitution, which prohibits restrictive penalties for publishing crimes except those related to discrimination between citizens, incitement of violence or impingement of individual honor.

Qallash expresses similar concerns, saying that the drafted bill that prohibits provisions which infringe upon freedoms in publishing cases “will now be forgotten.”

According to Shazly, the culture and media committee is concerned only with media legislation, and the cancellation of penalties which infringe on freedom necessitates the amendment of the Penal Code, which is the responsibility of the Parliament’s legislative committee.

He affirms: “Of course we support the freedom of journalists and their right to express their views in their writing, especially as we are living an era of freedoms.”

Despite this, Shazly and his parliamentary committee have other priorities.

“The world is up against Egypt, and small states are launching attacks on us through their media platforms,” he claims, asserting the need to strengthen the media. “We seek to strengthen state-owned media and benefit from all human resources in media outlets.”

According to Shazly the committee will “reconsider some local television channels as well as publications. We will work towards a restructuring of the State Information Services, which does not reflect Egypt’s achievements abroad.”

“This is good news for the Egyptian people,” he concludes. “Expect a strong media in 2017.”

Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla

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