Will Egypt’s Supreme Media Regulatory Council become a new censorship body?

Parties airing content on satellite TV channels and radio programs in Egypt could now face substantial fines if they are found to broadcast “offensive” material, after the Supreme Media Regulatory Council imposed new regulations on advertisers and programmers in a Wednesday decision.

If found to be in violation of the new regulations, satellite channels and radio stations would have to pay a fine of LE200,000 of LE100,000 respectively for a first offense. Repeat offenses carry penalties that would allow the Supreme Media Regulatory Council to revoke the channel’s license if they do not pay the fine within six months. The channel would then have to reapply for a license to resume broadcasting.

The Wednesday decision was announced in parallel to the publication of the council’s first report on the content of television programs and ads. Covering the first 10 days of Ramadan, the report criticized the aired content for sexual suggestions, encouraging “unacceptable behavior,” factual errors in historical dramas, artistic mistakes, political undertones and offending certain professions.

The regulatory council singled out several shows and scenes in its report, criticizing those that depict men and women in bed together, such as Adel Imam’s Afarit Adly Allam. The council criticized a scene in the show in which actor Ghada Adel attempts to embrace and kiss Imam as well as Adel’s “revealing clothing.” The series Khalsana bi-Shyaka also received criticism for what the report described as its scenes that depict a character that gives a free lesson on how to take drugs and “prostitutes who resort to surgical procedures to artificially restore their hymens.”

Khalsana bi-Shyaka was also singled out for its political undertones, with the council noting how one of the principal characters gives a public speech marked by grammatical errors, forcing him to improvise and speak of the ways he tortures his opponents, understood to be a satirical reference to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The report also criticizes “offenses” done to police officers.

Mahmoud Othman, a Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression lawyer, told Mada Masr that the decision represents a severe violation of the Constitution and the law. According to Othman, the council has overstepped its legal mandate by putting forth a penalty that is not included in the penal code as much as its stated role in regulating journalistic content by censoring artistic works.

“The Supreme Media Regulatory Council’s report not only criticized dramatic productions from a moral perspective but also presented an artistic evaluation, which is completely out of its specialization. Its members aren’t artists or critics to begin with,” Osman said.

However, Law 92/2016 that deals with the regulation of press and media institutions granted a wide purview to the Supreme Media Regulatory Council in supervising media content in all its forms, rather than specifically journalistic content. The third article of the law concerning the aims of the council states that it will “guarantee that media and press organizations shall abide by the principles and standards of the professions and their ethics and guarantee that media and press organizations will abide by the requirements of national security.”

According to the fourth article of the law, the council has the authority to establish and implement the professional rules and standards of the press, the media and advertising, in coordination with their respective syndicates. The article does not specify what the nature of these rule and standards should be.

However, the mandates granted to the council by the law are vague and numerous, which expands its oversight over media content, Osman argued.

Osman contended that this expansionary mandate crosses over into the governance of other regulatory bodies, citing a 2016 court ruling that reinforced the Media Free Zone administration’s authority over granting and confiscating broadcasting licenses, as well as overseeing adherence to the terms of these licenses.

If the Supreme Media Regulatory Council does secure the ability to revoke television licenses, it could control artistic content by exercising control over broadcasters, he added.

Osman expects producers to sue the council if it redacts any scenes in their shows. “This decision cannot be divorced from the general propensity of the state to control the public sphere,” he said.

Khaled Abdel Gelil, the head of the Culture Ministry’s censorship authority, was quoted in the Egyptian press on Thursday as saying that the authority is implementing a rating system based on viewer age recommendations for television dramas. However, the authority head said that many channels did not air their designated rating before the broadcast of their shows, prompting the censorship authority to file an official complaint against several channels and to call on the Supreme Media Regulatory Council to intervene.

Adam Yassin, a contributing writer in the production of Khalsana bi-Shyaka, said the censorship authority reads each drama series’s script and watches each episode before it airs, rendering any need for the Supreme Media Regulatory Council unnecessary. For Yassin, the report was a setback. “A moralizing tone was apparent throughout the report, calling for the production of art with a moral purpose, which is a return to the state’s approach in past decades. The regime used to monopolize drama production, but the private sector’s competition eventually eroded that monopoly.”

Yassin said he does not believe the council’s approach to regulate drama productions will be successful, given how profitable the industry is and that these attempts would cause the value of productions to deteriorate, something artists will not allow.

Sisi has called for art return to serving a moral purpose more than once. Speaking at a Police Day celebration in 2015, Sisi addressed actors Yusra and Ahmed al-Sakka, who were in attendance. “Our experience must be rich, even media and television and films and series,” he said. “Who will confront that? Who will create awareness? Mr. Ahmed and Ms. Yusra, you will be held accountable by God for this. Give people hope for a better tomorrow, with better values and morals. This will not happen through anyone but you. Every state sector has a role. We will see next Ramadan.”

Translated by Osman El Sharnoubi

Mai Shams El-Din 

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