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Regulators without regulations
The protracted process toward a media law
 
 
 

On December 14, 2016, Parliament passed legislation to create three media regulators by a two-thirds majority. The plan was to pass another bill to regulate media practice within a month after the formation of these new regulatory bodies.

On April 12, 2017, the three bodies were formed: the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC), the National Press Authority (NPA) and the National Broadcasting Authority (NBA), and they have been acting as de facto media regulators, all while the media regulation law waits on a parliamentary shelf.

This has raised questions about the role of these regulators and the liberties they have taken in governing the media landscape in Egypt today.

On December 13, 2016, then-Supreme Press Council (SPC) head Galal Aref sent a letter to Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal to inquire about the duties of the (former) SPC, as well as the newly established NPA and NBA and how their relationship with unregulated online news outlets and media entities’ board chairpersons and chief editors will operate functionally.

Aref presented three proposals: The first was that the media bill be passed alongside the bill creating the three regulators; the second was that a separate bill on media practice be drafted and submitted to the new regulators as soon as they are formed, requiring the regulators to review the bill within 15 days of their first meeting; and the third was that Parliament undertakes to pass the bill regulating media before the end of its second session, which concluded on July 5, 2017.

The legislation passed by Parliament in 2016 included an article requiring the three regulators to coordinate with Parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee and to consult the different draft media bills presented by a number of relevant parties within one month of each regulator’s respective first meetings.

Multiple committees and bills

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb ordered the creation of a committee tasked with preparing legislation regulating the media in October 2014, as provided in the Constitution. The committee was to submit its drafts to Mehleb for his review before the president’s ratification.

The formation of the committee was protested by the Journalists Syndicate and the former SPC. Then-Journalists Syndicate head Diaa Rashwan and Aref met with Mehleb, who assured them that the committee was only to provide consultation. Later, the Journalists Syndicate opted to create an independent committee, including journalists, media professionals, law and media experts and public figures. After deliberation, the committee decided to create the 50-member National Committee for Media and Press Legislation (NCMPL).

The government’s eight-member committee, established by Mehleb, announced a new draft and submitted it to the Supreme Committee for Legislative Reform, which was headed by the PM at the time. The Journalists Syndicate deemed the motion a violation of the Constitution, which stipulates that the Journalists Syndicate must be consulted regarding all laws pertaining to press practice.

Meanwhile, the NCMPL announced a unified media bill on August 5, 2015.

The government, however, did not move on either bill until May 16, 2016, when the Cabinet approved the unified media bill, drafted by the 50-member committee and composed of 227 articles in principle, and submitted it to the State Council for review, after which it would be submitted to Parliament.

Two separate bills

The unified media bill remained under review by the State Council until November 5, 2016, when it announced that the review process was complete and that the bill had been returned to the Cabinet for further deliberation. On November 29, 2016, Magdy al-Agaty, who was the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs minister at the time, announced that the unified media bill would be splintered into two bills: one creating the regulators and one encompassing all remaining articles.

On December 4, 2016, Parliament received the bill on press and media regulatory bodies. During a meeting that was held just 10 days later to pass the bill, Agaty said that he submitted the second bill – which comprises all unified media bill articles that were not included in the regulatory bodies’ bill – to Parliament. The government, he said, pledged not to introduce any amendments to it.

Acting on the new law, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued three presidential decrees on February 11, 2017, creating the SMRC (headed by Makram Mohamed Ahmed), the NPA (headed by Karam Gabr) and the NBA (headed by Hussein Zein.)

For Mostafa Shawky, a researcher on press freedom at the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression, one of the main objectives of dividing the unified media bill, which took the 50-member committee two years to draft, was to dissolve the SPC and the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) and replace them with new bodies that could be largely controlled by the executive branch, which would select the majority of their members. These bodies would then keep the media in check as they saw fit, under the provisions of the 1996 press law. The regulators, he says, are exercising this function according to this law.

Parliament passed the law on regulatory bodies much faster compared to the bill governing their operations, says Shawky. This, he argues, is an indication that the state is clearing the way for the new regulators to dominate the media arena, free from any binding legal provisions.

The articles pertaining to the formation of these regulatory bodies were amended, according to Karem Mahmoud, the Journalists Syndicate general secretary and a member of the NCMPL. The unified media bill stipulated that the majority of these bodies’ members would be chosen by elected councils, but before the first bill creating the three media regulators was passed by Parliament and ratified by Sisi in February 2017, an amendment was introduced, granting the president the authority to appoint the majority.

The law now stipulates that these three regulatory authorities will be formed by presidential decree, according to the following provisions: The journalists and media professionals syndicates shall nominate four of their members to the SMRC, the Journalists Syndicate shall nominate three representatives of state-owned press outlets to the NPA, and the Media Professionals Syndicate shall nominate three media professionals to the NBA.

A long-awaited piece of legislation still far from becoming law

Mahmoud is not optimistic about the media bill becoming law during the current parliamentary session, which will conclude by the end of June of this year. He tells Mada Masr that forming the three regulators, which were able to identify their duties and competencies independently from the media bill, has pushed this legislation far down the government and Parliament’s list of priorities. He adds that the decisions taken by the SMRC since it was created, including reporting journalists to the prosecution and fining and disciplining them, are exactly what the 50-member committee anticipated and warned about when the government – and later Parliament – opted to divide the unified media bill into two separate pieces of legislation.

There may also be some personal agendas involved, according to Mahmoud, as SMRC head Makram Mohamed Ahmed may be deliberately holding the legislation back in response to his non-inclusion on the 50-member committee that drafted the unified media bill. Mahmoud claims that Ahmed considered his appointment as SMRC head a perfect opportunity to slow down any progress toward a media regulation law and, instead, retain the authority to set any controls and restrictions as he pleases.

Even over 12 months after the creation of the regulatory bodies, Osama Heikal, head of Parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, still refuses to state the reasons for the delayed approval of the bill. “The committee,” he tells Mada Masr, “has made extraordinary efforts to draft provisions that comply with the Constitution and can garner the endorsement of the competent authorities.”

According to Heikal, the draft is currently undergoing a final discussion and vote by the parliamentary committee, after which it will be put up to a vote at a general meeting. The bill, says Heikal, was presented to seven government bodies for review and consultation: the SMRC, NPA, NBA, the journalists and media professionals syndicates, the Media Chamber and the Egyptian Competition Authority.

Another MP, Tamer Abdel Qader, secretary of Parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, attributed the delay to these seven government bodies, as the committee had to wait for their remarks on the bill before starting a discussion. Abdel Qader tells Mada Masr that each of these seven bodies presented remarks relevant to their scope and that the committee looked into these remarks and amended the draft to accommodate a number of these concerns. According to him, all articles have received the approval of the parliamentary committee members in the preliminary vote. Pending the committee’s final approval, the bill would be put to a final vote at a plenary parliamentary session, then submitted to Sisi to be ratified.

Parliament has also told the SMRC that it is close to passing the bill, according to SMRC member Hatem Zakareya. He tells Mada Masr that Parliament submitted the media bill to the SMRC, and the latter presented Parliament with its remarks over five months ago. He says that the remarks were on a short list of articles, but he does not know whether the parliamentary committee amended the relevant provisions accordingly. Zakareya, however, did not disclose the SMRC’s remarks.

A similar course of events transpired with the Journalists Syndicate. According to Amr Badr, the syndicate submitted its remarks on the media bill to Parliament over five months ago. Most notably, the syndicate commented on the expansion of imprisonment penalties for publishing-related charges, as well as the introduction of new charges not stipulated in the Constitution, all of which put journalists at an increased risk of facing time in prison. While the Constitution only stipulates imprisonment for the “incitement of violence, discrimination between citizens, or impugning the honor of individuals,” the bill, says Badr, punishes broadly defined charges, such as showing contempt for religion and threatening social and public peace. Like the SMRC, the Journalists Syndicate was not informed whether Parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee introduced any amendments based on its remarks, according to Badr. The reasons behind Parliament’s reluctance to approve the bill are also unknown to him.

Shawky considers the limited media coverage of the bill curious. The Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, says Shawky, has banned media coverage of meetings that were held to discuss the bill over the past few months. Instead, it only issued press releases, often stressing that “the bill is very complex and concentrated on press practice more than radio and television.” Thus, Shawky argues, the government and Parliament retained the bill as an internal matter; the magnitude of the amendments introduced by the parliamentary committee to the 50-member NCMPL’s bill are not known to anyone outside the two authorities.

Shawky adds that the regulators have failed to fulfill their duty to speed up the process to pass the bill. The Constitution, he explains, authorizes the three bodies to comment on bills pertaining to their fields and conduct dialogue on them. Yet, they stood on the sidelines, limiting themselves to their supervisory role.

The absence of this law, Shawky argues, has exacerbated the friction surrounding the rights and freedoms of journalists and media professionals, as well as matters related to licensing media organizations. For instance, the office of the privately owned Masr al-Arabia website was raided in April and its editor in chief was detained. He now faces several charges, including operating the website without the necessary licenses. This situation, says Shawky, will persist until a law has been passed to regulate media practice; until then, websites’ licenses will remain under the jurisdictions of the ministries of investment and international cooperation, and communications and information technology, according to previous legislation. Moreover, website owners will continue to be penalized for not registering their operations in accordance with a law that is still in the works.

Nevertheless, Shawky is averse to passing the media practice law at this time. He cites the crackdown on media freedoms and argues that the media field is undergoing a complete restructuring, in which security agencies are widely thought to be acquiring most media outlets. Finally, the SMRC, NPA and NBA have already been established, despite unified disapproval from press and media professionals, says Shawky.

According to Zakareya, however, the SMRC maintains that it is currently exercising its legal authority, as stipulated in both the 2016 legislation and the 1996 press law, which will stay in effect until the media practice bill is ratified by the president.

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