CAIRO — President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced April 11 the formation of the National Media Council and its National Press Organization and National Media Organization. Concerns over freedom of the media have been raised among media staff, however, given that figures opposing the ruling regime were excluded from the formation.
Constitution Article 211 stipulates, “The National Media Council is an independent entity that has a legal personality; enjoys technical, financial and administrative independence; and has an independent budget. The council regulates the affairs of radio, television, and printed and digital press, among others.”
Based on that, the council, headed by pro-Sisi journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed, who was previously the head of the Press Syndicate under the Mubarak regime, will have the upper hand in the media sector. Under the Institutional Regulation of the Press and the Media Law passed in December, the council’s most prominent task is to advise on relevant draft laws and regulations; receive notices for the establishment of newspapers; issue licenses for the establishment and operation of audio, visual and digital media outlets; and develop and implement rules and regulations to ensure that media outlets and press institutions are abiding by the ethical standards of the profession and not causing harm to national security.
The National Press Organization, headed by journalist Karam Gaber, who chaired the Rose al-Yusuf Institution under the Mubarak regime and is known for his stances favoring Sisi, assumes the management of the state-owned press. The National Media Organization, headed by Hussein Zein, manages the state-owned media outlets to provide press, digital, audio and visual production, and broadcasting services. Both organizations also assume a censorship role over private satellite channels and newspapers, without being entitled to manage them.
The formation of the National Media Council and the national press and media organizations sparked media debate and accusations that the council is designed to curb freedom of the media because — along with the national organizations — it consists of pro-regime figures only.
Press Syndicate member Amr Badr criticized the formation of the National Media Council and the national press and media organizations. He told Al-Monitor, “The formation of the National Media Council and its organizations regulating media and press activity raises concern. This is because those members who were selected by the president of the republic are known for their absolute support for the ruling regime. Most of them are affiliated with the Mubarak regime and held senior positions under his rule. This proves that the selection criteria are the same as those prevailing prior to the January 25 Revolution. Members are being selected based on their affiliation [with] the regime and abidance to its dictates. This criterion raises major concerns among journalists over the freedom of the press and media.”
He added, “Another problem is the absence of younger members, which means that the state has no vision toward younger people. The youunger people are the main drive of the media, and their absence would ensure a further domination by the state over the council and organizations to have its own way in the media.”
He added, “The National Media Council’s tasks are vague. For instance, monitoring media outlets to ensure that national security is not jeopardized is something vague, because the concept of national security varies from [one] person to another. It [has] been done deliberately by the state, with the objective of having the media under its control and further predominating it. Those regimes engaged in countering the freedom of the media, and rejecting media criticism leveled against the state, are accustomed to this method.”
Mohammed Shuman, the dean of the faculty of communication and mass media at the British University in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “There are many concerns over the freedom of the media, due to the timing of the April 11 presidential decree on the formation of the National Media Council and the national press and media organizations, which came two days following the April 9 blasts inside St. George's Church in Tanta and St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria. It also came under a state of emergency declared due to these incidents.”
He added, “The council’s members might be influenced by the state of emergency. Their decisions and rules will, therefore, constrain the freedom of the media and communications, especially social media and digital journalism.”
Shuman criticized the fact that the National Media Council and national press and media organizations count out opposition representatives and that many of their members are affiliated with former leaders under the Mubarak regime and the dissolved National Democratic Party. He said, “There are no young people who are members of the council and organizations. All members are over age 50, although a majority those working in the press and media in Egypt are young people.”
Chairman of the National Media Council Hatem Zakaria told Al-Monitor that “the National Media Council and the national press and media organizations have excluded members who do not support the state and state plans to regulate the media and end media muddle that causes harm to the state’s interests at home and abroad.”
Commenting on the National Media Council and the national press and media organizations not having younger members, Zakaria said, “They did not include younger members because the presence of experienced members is required at the current stage in order to develop general media policies. In the next four-year term, the National Media Council and national press and media organizations might include young people as members. Their mission will be easier after the council’s clear policies are developed and its role in regulating the media is determined.”
He added, “The National Media Council will not impose restrictions on the freedom of the media but will be working to regulate it. An absolute freedom would prejudice the country. The media needs to be responsible to avoid causing any harm to the country and society. We are taking into account the fact that the state is fighting a fierce war against terrorism.”
The formation of the National Media Council and the national press and media organizations shows that the state intends to put reins on the media. Members known for their opposition to the state and its policy toward the media are excluded from the council and its organizations. This has raised concerns among media personnel, particularly since Egypt has been under a state of emergency since April 9.