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Egypt’s proposed media law spooks journalists

Egyptian journalists are speaking out against a vast press and media bill, warning it grants wide powers to the government and places potentially heavy restrictions on journalists.

CAIRO — The Egyptian House of Representatives approved a press and media bill June 10 and sent it to the State Council for review. The bill contains three separate draft laws to regulate the Supreme Council for the Press and the Media (SCPM), the National Press Authority (NPA) and the National Media Authority.

However, parliament members, journalists and others have denounced the draft laws on the grounds that they grant wide powers to the government’s SCPM and NPA and allow the blocking of personal accounts on social networking sites. On June 12, members of the parliament’s 25-30 Alliance denounced Egypt’s media and press regulations and said that Articles 5, 10, 19 and 29 of the SCPM draft law contain vague language that could be interpreted in a way that violates both freedom of the press and the constitution.

On June 11, four council members of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate issued a statement declaring their rejection of the draft laws. They said that the bills are a reflection of the will of some parties to control the national and private press. According to Articles 15 and 35 of the NPA draft law, the authority would directly manage Egypt’s press institutions and control the boards of directors and public assemblies of national newspapers, thus preventing institutions such as Al-Ahram and Al-Gomhuria from making any important decisions without the NPA’s preapproval.

The syndicate members said that Articles 4 and 5 of the SCPM draft law subvert press freedoms through vague wording concerning the distribution of hatred, incitement, threat to democracy and pornographic material, among other violations. Article 19 gives the SCPM the right to monitor and block personal social networking accounts that have more than 5,000 followers.

Khalid al-Balashi, a member of the Journalists Syndicate, wrote in a June 9 Facebook post that Article 19 of the SCPM draft law aims to muzzle journalists through the wide powers it grants to the SCPM.

Yasser Abdel Aziz, the office manager of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, told Al-Monitor that the draft law does have one positive aspect: filling the legislative vacuum surrounding the regulation of the press and the media since the passing of the press regulation law in 1996. But he also said there are concerns over the freedom of opinion and expression, as Article 19 of the SCPM draft law allows for the closure of personal social media accounts, blogs and websites and imposes penalties for publishing certain vaguely defined content at the SCPM's discretion.

Meanwhile, NPA head Karam Gaber denied claims that the NPA would control press institutions. He told Al-Monitor that under the draft law, the boards of directors of these bodies would control the institutions’ actions and decisions. Six of these boards' 12 members would be elected while the other six would be appointed by the chairman. His association, he added, would not interfere in such choices, as its role is merely supervisory.

Asked about claims that the law includes articles that restrict freedoms, Gaber said that the law forbids the pre-trial detention of journalists in press-related cases, and he stated that insults and defamation are criminal offenses, be they committed by press institutions or ordinary individuals. In such cases, he said, litigation is a constitutional right. Those criticizing the draft law should read it well before doing so, he added.

Gaber stated that the draft law includes many aspects that benefit journalists and was passed with the aim of reforming and restructuring the press institutions, establishing administrative processes and regulating wages for journalists. The draft law also guarantees journalists can demand financial compensation when a publication folds and requires employment contracts to protect journalists' rights.

Osama Heikal, the head of the parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, told Al-Monitor that the draft law was issued in a bid to reform the work of the media and the press, and he added that it contains specific texts and articles on the freedom of the press and the media. It also specifically addresses the rights of the public, striking a balance between press and public freedoms. Heikal explained that Article 71 of the SCPM draft law provides for the establishment of a system for processing complaints.

As for the closing of personal accounts on social networks, he said that this only applies to accounts that have more than 5,000 followers and that publish rumors and lies. Such accounts, he stated, would be treated as media outlets. He assured Al-Monitor that the legislation will not affect "personal opinions" expressed via such accounts.

Heikal went on to say that the constitution was respected during the yearlong preparation of the draft law. He said its articles guarantee the freedom of the press and the Constitutional Court alone has the authority to rule otherwise.

During the parliament’s plenary session held June 10 to discuss the draft law, Ali Abdel Aal, speaker of the Egyptian House of Representatives, said that he reviewed its penalties to make sure that they do not breach any international conventions on press freedom. He concluded that the draft law indeed guarantees the freedom of expression.

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