New plans to regulate digital media

A year in the works, a draft law for the regulation of newspapers and media was completed in August. If passed, it would mean far greater regulation of Egypt’s digital media scene.

The proposed law, drafted by the National Authority of Media and Journalism Legislation, is meant to bring the regulation of media in line with the Constitution, passed in 2014. The draft law sets up a unified legislative structure for print and digital media through the Supreme Press Council, the creation of which was stipulated in Article 211 of the Constitution. It would organize the affairs of all broadcast and print media, as well as digital sites “and others,” and would include a committee that evaluates content.

A permit from the council would be required to establish an electronic news site, and several conditions govern eligibility. A shareholder company must be formed with starting capital of no less than half a million Egyptian pounds, half of which must be deposited in an Egyptian bank.

Each media institution must also assign an individual responsible for broadcasting. This individual must be Egyptian, a full-time journalist with at least 10 years experience and be in good legal standing.

The news site would require further approval in order to broadcast to smart phones. The law proposes punishing illegal digital broadcasts with a fine of between a quarter of a million and half a million pounds.

Ahmed Khair, manager of the Support for Information Technology Center NGO, stresses that the stipulation of a large amount of starting capital would be a significant impediment for nascent local sites. These sites work on an almost individual level of initiative, he says, and with a very narrow window of funding.

With the widespread use of the Internet, he explains, hundreds of electronic news-related sites are playing an increasingly important role. Not only do they cover local and regional issues on the levels of politics, economics and culture, but they also are integral in exposing bureaucratic corruption, he says. 

In essence, Khair argues, the spirit of the law is aimed at creating a controlled media.

The proposed law does not clearly define terms such as “journalist,” “broadcast,” “institution” or “smart phone,” and as such does not distinguish between online publishing of individuals and electronic media.

Media consultant Yasser Abdel Aziz explains that it is possible to define personal publishing sites as ones that target a predefined audience and which take the form of personal correspondence. Journalistic content, which should be subjected to some form of regulation, he says, is presented on the Internet under the name of one site and is constantly updated, targeted at all audiences, and is produced by a working editorial body.

The main players: The state and the syndicate

Journalist and member of the syndicate Ehab al-Zallaqy considers the proposed law a reflection of the vision of the two main players in the Egyptian journalistic and media scene, as well as the degree of interaction between them. The first player, the state, makes continuous efforts to control the media, Zallaqy says, while the Journalists Syndicate, the second player, is no less influential than the state.

It is clear from the published draft, he says, that the younger generation was not included in the process and that the committee does not appear to have been aware of new developments in the media sphere.

With harsh requirements and conditions to qualify for membership in the Journalists Syndicate, a minority of journalists are in fact registered with the syndicate. Very few journalists who work for online newspapers are registered, as these sites did not previously qualify as journalistic outlets in the eyes of the syndicate.

Zallaqy argues that in order to fully comprehend the issues surrounding the syndicate, one would need to follow the money.

Although the syndicate has several sources of income, such as the tariff on advertisements, he says, it “does not show an interest in following or collecting it, and is satisfied with what money the state sends.”

The money that the syndicate dispenses to its members each month comes directly from the Ministry of Finance to the treasury of the syndicate. When the state wants to put pressure on the syndicate or its members, it either stops or delays this payment.

Head of the Journalists Syndicate Yehia Qallash says that the fact that the financial sources of the syndicate come from the state’s treasury does not make the syndicate vulnerable to state pressure, though it is problematic.

For media consultant Yasser Abdel Aziz, the fields of journalism and media are at a historical crossroads in Egypt, and forced to choose one of two paths. The first is to codify freedom of speech and the rights of journalists to join a union or syndicate, and the second is to continue relying on state money dispensed monthly.

“The syndicate has to make up its mind,” he says. “Either it is another elitist group that receives privileges from the state in the form of an allowance, or it is a professional organization that guarantees rights to all who work in a licensed institution.”

Zallaqy insists that any attempts to solve these issues piecemeal, without addressing the framework that governs journalistic or media work, and without a desire for a true independent media, will be wasted.

Syndicate head Qallash agrees that the law should be amended to provide more appropriate measures to absorb more journalists, as well as develop syndicate resources to allow for its independence from the state.

The syndicate’s council began discussing the amendment of the Journalists Syndicate law in October. Gamal Abdel Rehim, secretary general of the syndicate, told privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that the amendment seeks to “include website editors in the membership, since the law was passed at a time when the press was limited to hard copy, and hence is no longer appropriate for electronic journalism.”

But what model could inspire the re-organization of digital media?

Media consultant Abdel Aziz sees that laying down new definitions within publishing and journalism in the Internet age is a task that is long overdue.

“The organizational form of electronic journals should start from international standards,” he explains.

“The most important of these standards is the act of enabling,” Abdel Aziz argues, by which he means enabling content and removing any unreasonable obstacles in the way of expression on the Internet.

Abdel Aziz adds that some form of compromise needs to be reached between complete agency in terms of content production and the opposite extreme, strict regulation.

He believes that the degree of the compromise reached reflects the state of the country’s democracy.

Jordanian 7iber website published a study in April seeking to contribute to the ongoing discussion concerning means of promoting freedom of electronic media in Jordan by reviewing “international lessons towards a progressive organization of the Internet.”

The study, conducted by researcher Thoraya al-Rayes, reviews models for the organization of Internet journalism from four different countries: Finland, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa.

These four countries were chosen, the report explains, to demonstrate that “these policies could be applied in different contexts whether in established or transitional democracies, in addition to their applicability in countries along different positions on the development spectrum. This means that the implementation of these policies is not restricted to established democracies or high income countries.”

Brazil introduced the civil framework for the Internet in April 2014 on the basis that access to the Internet is an essential right of citizenship, the report says. The composition of the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee gives the government a higher representation but deprives it of the majority. The committee is not empowered to ban websites, which is an exclusively judicial decision.

In South Africa, the Press Council similarly has a mixed composition. According to the study, penalties that the council can enforce include “publishing corrections, and/or apologies and/or providing the complainant a defined space in the media outlet to respond.” No financial penalties are enforced on any content.

In addition to the press council, the union of Internet service providers regulates the technical aspects. The union gives users the right to request the deletion of certain content if they find it in violation of the law. However, it also punishes the complainant in case of “faulty deletion of content” if the complaint proved to have deliberately misrepresented truths.

In Finland, the Council for Mass Media monitors journalistic practices on the basis of a voluntary code of conduct. The judiciary is the only authority that may order the block, wholly or in part, of digital content if it is proved to violate the law. The study indicates that Finnish law differentiates between “Internet publishing by individuals and that of electronic media,” with individuals subject to fewer restrictions.

Journalist Zallaqy thinks that with some discussion and a little imagination, it is easy to be inspired by models of reform and development of media channels, including digital media. “But, of course, we must first want to do that.”

Mohamed Hamama 

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