Neither victory nor defeat: Court refers Mada Masr blocking case for technical review

Clarity regarding the block on Mada Masr’s website remains out of reach, following a Sunday court ruling which referred the case for technical review by a panel of Justice Ministry experts, according to lawyer Hassan al-Azhary. 

The decision, issued by the second circuit of the Court of Administrative Justice (CAJ), came after over a year of complicated court proceedings. Azhary told Mada Masr that the ruling has essentially suspended the judicial process until an unknown date, as the ministry’s Authority of Experts could take years to examine the case.

In referring the it to ministry experts, Azhary believes the court is attempting to put off issuing a verdict in a sensitive case, despite the fact that Sunday’s ruling suggests that it may think there are just grounds for Mada Masr’s lawsuit regarding the fact its website has been inaccessible to users on Egyptian internet service providers since May 2017.

A very similar lawsuit was filed by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Sharq channel regarding a block on access to its website, Azhary said, adding that the same circuit of the CAJ issued a ruling to throw out the case in April. The lawyer said that given the similarities, he believes the decision to refer Mada Masr’s case for a technical review hints that the court may be erring in its favor.

Access to almost 500 websites is currently blocked in Egypt, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.

Parliament passed several laws regulating Egypt’s media landscape in July, including one which permits for the blocking of access to websites. Previously, however, there was no legislation that provided for website blocks.

About the case

On the evening of May 25, 2017, Mada Masr’s website became unreachable for users on Egyptian ISPs. While no official statements were issued regarding the block on websites, which also affected 20 other outlets, the state-run Middle East News Agency published a piece later that night, quoting a high-level security source as saying that access to websites which disseminated “content that supports terrorism and extremism and deliberately spreads lies,” had been barred in Egypt in accord with “relevant legal proceedings.”

Several weeks after the website block was enacted, Mada Masr media company filed a lawsuit petitioning the National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA) to provide official documentation of the decision behind it, if there had been one. Mada Masr also requested a technical explanation as to how the block was enacted, and that ISPs be required to remove all technical obstacles preventing users from accessing its website.

In the case’s first hearing, held on September 9, the NTRA denied it was responsible for administering the block, an assertion it has maintained throughout the case. A back and forth ensued, with lawyers representing Mada Masr and the Communications and Information Technology Ministry arguing that it was solely responsible, and the NTRA countering that website blocks fell under the purview of a national security body or the Supreme Media Regulatory Council.

Article 1 of the communication law (Law 10/2003) designates national security agencies as: the presidency, the Interior Ministry, the General Intelligence Services and Administrative Control Authority. According to Article 64 of the law, the Armed Forces are also considered an agency concerned with national security, when it comes to technical capabilities that include: telecommunications equipment, systems and programs.

In a November session, as media regulatory bodies continued to deny involvement in the blocking of access to its website, Mada Masr Media requested that the court add the president of Egypt, the defense minister, deputy head of the General Intelligence Service, the interior minister and head of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council as respondents in the case.

It looked like a verdict was on the horizon in February of this year, but the case was reopened on March 25. According to Azhary, state lawyers and the NTRA have provided no new information in the case since then. Eventually, in late July, the CAJ set September 30 as the date it expected to announce a verdict.

Instead of a verdict, however, the court referred the case for a technical review. Typically, Azhary told Mada Masr, the case would be referred to the NTRA, but because the body is a respondent in the case, it has been handed to the Authority of Experts at the Justice Ministry.

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