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Is Egypt tightening its grip on the media?

Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation is using new bylaws to block and fine a website it claims engaged in defamation, but journalists worry the media watchdog may be going too far to limit their freedom to work in the country.

CAIRO — Egypt’s top media regulator has wasted no time in using newly enacted bylaws to impose sanctions on a news site, yet critics claim the body is overstepping its role and limiting freedom of the press.

Egypt's Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued March 21 a decision to block El-Mashhad news site for six months and impose a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (nearly $2,900) for the insult and defamation of women involved in sex cases with a well-known director. The decision was based on regulations the council established in new bylaws approved March 18 concerning sanctions that may be imposed on entities subject to law No. 180 of 2018 that regulates the press, media and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation.

The regulation ignited controversy in the press and media circles, particularly since the council is entitled under Article 5 of the regulation to ban the publication of media material if it violates said law and regulation. In addition, Article 6 of the regulation gives the council the right to block a website and revoke the satellite broadcast license from a media outlet in case of a broadcast of banned media materials. The regulation makes applicable a fine of up to 250,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $14,500) for media violations. Also, a penalty of up to 5 million pounds ($298,000) is imposed in the event of intellectual property infringement, according to Article 26 of the regulation. 

Diaa Rashwan, chairman of the Syndicate of Journalists, said in a March 19 press statement that the syndicate’s board will discuss the regulation. He added that the syndicate will resort to all of the legal tools to safeguard the journalists’ rights in accordance with the following articles of the constitution: Article 70 on the freedom of the press and printing; Article 71 that prohibits censorship, suspension and closure of Egyptian media outlets; Article 72 that sets forth that the state guarantees the independence of press institutions; and Article 77 on the establishment of syndicates.

Rashwan indicated that the discussion — the date of which is yet to be determined — will take place in light of the observations that the previous board of the syndicate approved in its Jan. 8 session and submitted to the Supreme Council for Media Regulation. The observations consisted of taking away some imprecise terms as they could result in broad accusations, decreasing fines to no more than 100,000 pounds (roughly $5,800), referring the cases against journalists to the syndicate in case of accusations against them and banning the media material instead of blocking the media outlet.

Mohamed Saad Abdel Hafiz, a member of the syndicate’s board, told Al-Monitor over the phone that the regulation contradicts the constitutional texts and turns the Supreme Council for Media Regulation into a censor of freedom of expression and opinion. He added that Article 71 prohibits any censorship on newspapers and media outlets.

Abdel Hafiz criticized the regulation for the imposition of fines on media outlets in case of a violation, and for turning a blind eye to the syndicate’s observations. He explained that there is a general tendency at the syndicate’s board to challenge this regulation before the administrative judiciary, and added that such a measure will be discussed at the next meeting of the syndicate’s board.

Hafez Abu Saada, a member of the National Council for Human Rights, a government institution, told Al-Monitor over the phone that Article 211 of the constitution stipulates that the Supreme Council for Media Regulation shall ensure and safeguard freedom of the press, and did not grant the council any punitive power. Thus, he said, the disciplinary role falls within the syndicate’s competence, and the suspension of newspapers and channels is within the purview of the judiciary.

He added that the fine of up to 250,000 pounds on media outlets does not commensurate with the violations listed in the regulation. Their goal is to restrict the freedom of expression that is an infringement of the constitution, as Article 65 stipulates that freedom of opinion is guaranteed.

Under Article 211, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation “regulates the affairs of radio, television, and printed and digital press, among others. The council is responsible for guaranteeing and protecting the freedom of press and media stipulated in the constitution; safeguarding its independence, neutrality, plurality and diversity, preventing monopolistic practices; monitoring the legality of the sources of funding of press and media institutions; and establishing the controls and regulations necessary to ensure the commitment of press and media outlets to adhere to professional and ethical standards, and national security needs …”

Mahgoub Seada, general secretary of the Media Syndicate, said in a March 19 statement that Article 8 of the regulation — which provides for the council’s right “to prevent the violator from appearing in newspapers, media outlets and websites before the relevant syndicate completes the disciplinary accountability” — is a violation of Article 94 of law No. 180 of 2018, which stipulates that “the relevant syndicate shall be notified to take the necessary measures on the violations by its members … the relevant syndicate shall be committed to taking disciplinary actions on the person who commits the violation in accordance with the relevant syndicate’s law.”

Speaking to Masrawy news portal March 19, head of the council Makram Mohammed Ahmed criticized the syndicate's members for lambasting the regulation after its official approval. He noted, “The State Council approved the regulation that was discussed after obtaining observations made by both the syndicates of journalists and media figures as well as those made by the jurists in this regard.”

In response to the syndicates’ criticism, the council explained March 19 that the syndicates are going between the right of the Syndicate of Journalists to hold journalists accountable and the investigation that falls within the council’s purview. It noted that the media outlets, not the journalists, are the ones to be sanctioned under the regulation, and added that the council shall inquire into the complaint brought against the journalists before referring it to the syndicate.

The Supreme Council for Media Regulation refused to include in the regulation a ban of the media material instead of blocking the media outlet, and justified that the council would then turn into a censorship tool that goes against the constitution. Commenting on the observation that the crimes listed in the regulation are already available in the Penal Code, the council indicated that the sanctions under this law failed to prevent the media chaos that has prevailed in the past years.

The council emphasized that sanctions are being gradually implemented, starting with a notice before the issuing of warnings. It further said that as for the temporary block, this sanction is only applicable in extreme cases once all other sanctions have been exhausted, and indicated that under the regulation, no sanction shall be imposed unless a thorough investigation was conducted.

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