The saga over alleged financial irregularities at a children’s cancer hospital continues to unfold, after Egypt’s prosecutor general sent a letter addressed to Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) head Makram Mohamed Ahmed on Saturday, declaring the council’s gag order on coverage of the issue null and void and summoning him for investigations.
The SMRC issued the gag order on publication and broadcasting concerning “all matters related” to Egypt’s Children’s Cancer Hospital 57375 on Wednesday, threatening legal action against any party violating the order. The council did not specify a time frame for its decree, stating that the publication ban will be lifted following the conclusion of an audit being carried out by an administrative committee formed on June 26 by Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Wali.
In the Saturday letter, the prosecutor general asserted that the SMRC does not have the authority to issue gag orders, and issued a gag order of its own banning the publication of all material related to its investigations into the council’s decision.
Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek also summoned Ahmed for investigations before the Supreme State Security Prosecution for violating the law and infringing on the jurisdiction of the public prosecution. Ahmed has since confirmed that he would appear before the Supreme State Security Prosecution “out of respect for the judiciary.” In a statement issued later on Saturday, Ahmed insisted the legitimacy of the SMRC’s gag order, stating that the council has issued similar decisions before, “according to our understanding of our bylaws.”
According to Hassan al-Azhary, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), the legal basis for Ahmed’s summons and the charges he might face are unknown.
The Journalist Syndicate board was notified on Saturday of Ahmed’s summons to appear in front of the prosecution the following day and requested that the interrogation be postponed until Wednesday in order to give the syndicate enough time to appoint a lawyer to attend Ahmed’s interrogation alongside members of the board.
The SMRC’s Wednesday gag order came amid an ongoing controversy surrounding alleged financial irregularities and accusations of mismanagement of resources within 57357 Hospital, which is funded primarily by donations.
The issue was first brought to the public’s attention following a series of articles authored by prominent screenwriter Waheed Hamed. On June 12, the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper published an article by Hamed in which he questioned the hospital administration’s fiscal management, accusing it of squandering money.
Despite receiving over LE1 billion annually in donations, Hamed claimed, the hospital spends only LE140-200 million per year on treating patients. The screenwriter also stated that the majority of the hospital’s budget is allocated to publicity campaigns and advertising, which amount to LE136 million annually, and wages and salaries, which are projected to reach LE400 million in 2018, according to the article.
Hamed also claimed that the hospital donated LE37.5 million to the Sewage Authority, even though the laws under which the hospital was established stipulate that “it cannot spend a piaster on any other activity except that which is related to its primary purpose, which is to treat children with cancer.”
“The hospital is under the control of a single family — that of Dr. Sherif Abul Naga — which holds all the power,” Hamed stated. “Abul Naga is the general director of the hospital, a member of its board of directors and board of trustees, and a member of the Association of Friends of the National Cancer-free Initiative, among other positions. Then there is is Mr. Mahmoud al-Tohamy, the hospital’s managing director and Dr. Abul Naga’s brother-in-law, who is also a member of the hospital’s board of trustees and its board of directors, as well as being the secretary general of the Association of Friends of the National Cancer-free Initiative.”
Hamed’s article was not the first to discuss the hospital’s affairs, but it did prompt a response from its administration, which released a statement on June 21. Several articles written by businessman Tarek Nour and lawyer Mortada Mansour were subsequently published in defense of the hospital, to which Hamed, in turn, responded.
No judicial authority has announced an investigation into the existence of financial irregularities or administrative violations concerning the hospital’s operations as of yet. However, the Ministry of Social Solidarity formed a committee in late June, headed by its legal advisor, and with representatives from the Ministry of Health’s department of independent medical treatment, professors specialized in pediatric oncology and hospital administration, as well as representatives from the Administrative Control Authority and the Central Auditing Authority.
Most recently, Al-Masry Al-Youm published a statement by Mansour, the hospital’s legal representative, on Tuesday, in which the lawyer addressed Hamed directly. “Are you calling into question the financial honesty of Mr. Abul Naga?” Mansour asked. “If yes, then know this is the role of the relevant official bodies, namely the Administrative Control Authority, the Central Auditing Authority and the House of Representatives. If your answer is no, then you owe Mr. Abul Naga an apology.”
Amid the back and forth, Abul Naga’s lawyer filed a lawsuit against Hamed accusing him of slander, and Hamed responded by filing three lawsuits against Abul Naga.
Wednesday’s gag order attempted to put an end to the public debate, stipulating that “any individual with new information regarding this matter must report to judicial authorities, the investigation committee, or to the SMRC, which will send [this information] to the committee and publish it in cases deemed necessary.”
“Every point of view has been presented and there is nothing new to be added [to this discussion],” the media council stated.
Many questions were raised in response to Wednesday’s order regarding whether the council has the power to issue these decisions and whether it is the appropriate body to determine what can and cannot be published in the press.
Azhary tells Mada Masr that the only entity with the authority to issue gag orders is the prosecutor general’s office, in cases “when publication may present a threat to the course of an ongoing legal investigation, meaning that these cases are currently being reviewed by a court.”
While he asserts that the public prosecution is competent to issue gag orders, the lawyer adds that it is not authorized to void the council’s Wednesday order. This falls under the purview of the administrative judiciary, and as such he sees Sadek’s Saturday statement as encroaching on the State Council’s jurisdiction.
According to the lawyer, since its establishment in 2016, the media council has used the lack of clear bylaws to try and expand its jurisdiction.
Amr Badr, a board member of the Journalists Syndicate, told Mada Masr on Wednesday that decisions such as Wednesday’s gag order fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the prosecutor general’s office.
“Nevertheless, the Journalists Syndicate has never endorsed these decisions when they are issued by the prosecutor general, because they contradict the principles of press freedom and freedom of information,” he stated.
“What is even more surprising here,” Badr added, “isn’t the fact that the council has given itself the power to issue a gag order, but the fact that the council was self-appointed as the entity responsible for reviewing materials in gag order cases to ultimately determine what can and cannot be published.”
Mohamed Saad Abdel Hafeez, another syndicate board member, told Mada Masr, “The council is trying to stay one step ahead and thus decided to implement the new media regulation draft law — despite all the current objections against it, and before the law has been passed. Accordingly, the council has seized a power that belongs to the prosecutor general’s office and granted itself the right to exercise it.”
The new media bill is a derivation of the once-unified media regulation bill and has been criticized by syndicate leaders and press professionals for allowing new measures for journalists to be held in remand detention pending investigation into publishing-related offenses, reducing representation of journalists on the boards of press institutions, and granting the SMRC surveillance and censoring authorities.
“The SMRC’s gag order comes amid a series of decisions that call into question the role of the council and whether it is currently acting in a way that safeguards press freedom or trying to impose further restrictions,” Badr stated. “The entire matter is unfathomable, and it is hard to explain on what grounds the council has granted itself the right to all these powers without a law.”
Established in the late 1990s, the Children’s Cancer Hospital 57357 was built through donations, and is named after the bank account through which donors can contribute to its survival. The financial model first began with donations from religious figures, such as former Endowments Minister Sheikh Mohamed al-Shaarawi, before prominent Egyptian business figures joined to support the project and turned it into a non-profit start-up. At the time, four women from the business community helped gather LE8 million in seed money from citizens’ pledges to continue its construction. The hospital, which specializes in pediatric cancer treatment, first opened its doors in 2007.
*Note: This piece has been edited since it was originally published to include updates and further comments on July 8.