As controversial legislation to regulate the press in Egypt continues to spark backlash, journalists and legal bodies are decrying the most recent bill to pass through Parliament as unconstitutional and in violation of basic press freedoms.
Prompted by a State Council review asserting that parts of the draft law violate the Constitution, the Journalists Syndicate held an emergency board meeting on Tuesday, called for talks with Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal and head of Parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee Osama Heikal on the contentious bills, and issued a memo to Parliament.
Of the three media laws that were drafted — the Law on Regulating the Press and Media and the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC); the law regulating the National Press Authority (NPA); and the law regulating the National Broadcast Authority (NBA) — the first, which received preliminary approval on June 10, is being criticized for granting far-reaching powers to authorities to censor the press, revoke media licenses and restrict journalists’ work.
The Tuesday meeting followed a request submitted by six board members to discuss the legislation and the resignation of syndicate board member Abdul Seoud Mohamed on July 5, in protest against the bill.
Provisions in the law “impose restrictions on journalistic work and grant the SMRC absolute powers, exceeding those of the censorship authorities in the 50s and 60s,” says Saad Abdel Hafez, one of the syndicate board members who requested the emergency meeting. “[The laws] transform exceptional bans and gag orders into permanent statuses.”
The proposed legislation comes amid a wider crackdown on the press in recent years, with Egyptian authorities blocking access to hundreds of websites, harassing, detaining and prosecuting journalists, and taking direct ownership of private media outlets.
Syndicate board member Amr Badr tells Mada Masr that the board is scheduled to convene again in the coming week to consider recent developments and discuss a request filed by 183 members of the general assembly to hold an emergency general assembly on the draft legislation.
Following its initial approval, the bill’s passage through Parliament was widely condemned, with some members of Parliament telling Mada Masr at the time that they refused to attend the general vote in protest, after the concerns of a committee tasked with reviewing the bill were sidelined by legislators.
It was subsequently sent to the State Council’s Legislative and Fatwa Committee for review, and Parliament is expected to reopen discussion on the draft law, which is yet to be put up for a final vote, in the week starting July 15.
In its findings, issued on July 2, the State Council stated that it found that a number of articles to be in violation of the Constitution.
The most critical remarks concern articles 6, 59, 63, 67 and 79, which grant the SMRC the authority to regulate the licensing of press outlets as well as the mergers of media organizations. Mada Masr obtained a copy of the legislative committee’s review, which says the articles contradict the Constitution and legal precedent set by Supreme Constitutional Court rulings by stripping the legislature of the authority to regulate media licensing, granting it instead to the SMRC.
The State Council also points to articles 6, 19 and 95 of the draft law, which give the SMRC the authority to block websites, blogs and web accounts, suspend their activities or withdraw their licenses in cases of “working without a permit or prior to its issue [only in the case of press websites], publishing false news, incitement of violence, hate or discrimination, offenses against Abrahamic religions, and the case of slander, insults and libel.”
These articles do not define any procedure to appeal the SMRC’s decisions, prompting the State Council to request the addition of a clause allowing relevant parties to appeal decisions before the Court of Administrative Justice.
The review singles out Article 12 of the draft law, which requires media personnel to obtain permits to attend conferences, meetings, public assemblies, conduct street interviews with citizens, or to record visual material in public spaces where shooting is permitted. The State Council slammed the requirement as hostile to the mission of the press and a restriction of basic press freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. It recommended the article be repealed “to avoid a constitutional breach.”
The judicial committee also recommends removing the distinction between print and online publications, saying that the definition of a newspaper included in the bill’s first article, which reads, “any printed or electronic publication edited or broadcasted by syndicate-associated journalists,” is sufficient.
Additionally, criticism is leveled at the process by which the SMRC will issue rulings under the bill. According to the review, the article pertaining to voting quotas requires further clarification, as it is currently unclear whether rulings will be passed by a simple majority, with two thirds of SMRC members present to reach quorum, of if passage requires simply two thirds of the total members voting in favor.
Other internal processes, such as the nomination and selection process for candidates for the post of SMRC head when the position becomes vacant, are not designated clear timeframes within the current draft. The State Council also notes that there are no provisions allowing the current council to maintain its functions until it is reformed with the passage of the law.
In the wake of the Legislative and Fatwa Committee’s review, the Journalists Syndicate submitted a memo of its own to Parliament raising further concerns over 15 articles in the proposed legislation.
The issuance of the SMRC’s executive regulations should come after consultation with the journalists and media syndicates, according to the memo, which also objects to articles 4 and 5, as they grant the SMRC powers to ban media and press material that go beyond the provision of the Constitution. The syndicate also recommends that Article 9 be amended to impose a fine of between LE50,000 and LE100,000 on public and government bodies that are found to have obstructed journalists’ access to information, statements and news.
Similarly to the State Council, the syndicate censures the provisions of Article 12 of the bill and requests that it be removed, asserting that the ability to attend conferences and public meetings and conduct field reporting is intrinsic to journalistic work. Furthermore, the memo recommends that journalists should not be dismissed without notifying the syndicate and an investigation into the incident in question. It adds that amendments should be made ensuring that a journalist cannot be fired until 90 days after the syndicate is officially notified of an investigation, instead of the 30 days in the current draft.
Journalists and press professionals who previously spoke to Mada Masr slammed the bill for both stipulating that journalists may not be held in remand detention for publishing-related offenses while also introducing loosely defined exceptions. The syndicate’s recent memo requested that a clause be appended to this article allowing for detained journalists to be released “with no bail or financial guarantees imposed on them.”
Although the syndicate contests the sweeping powers granted to the NPA to cancel a publication, it recommends the clause granting the authority to merge publications together remain.
After Parliament’s initial approval of the law dozens of journalists, including syndicate board members, put their names to an open statement in protest. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) added to the wave of criticism, submitting their own remarks on the legislation. NCHR member George Isaac tells Mada Masr that articles 4, 5, 10, 19, 29 and 35 were of concern, since their loose and unclear terms could obstruct journalists’ work, and allow leeway for journalists’ detention once again.