Becoming ‘legal’: On Mada Masr’s decision to apply for a license under the new media law

Late into the evening of Thursday, October 18, we found out via social media that the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) had opened the door for websites to submit applications to legalize their status under the Law Regulating the Press and Media (Law 180/2018). A two-week deadline was announced. A colleague mockingly shared the news on an internal team thread, captioning it “the end.”

As much as we like to laugh, we’re also capable of taking things seriously, and we raced to meet the application requirements within the two-week timeframe. We had to head to the council several times in search of answers to various points of confusion: Which category outlined by the law do we fit under? Are we an electronic newspaper? An electronic broadcaster? A website? What if we don’t have time to meet all of the requirements, given the short and sudden deadline? Why is all of this happening prior to the issuance of the law’s executive bylaws, which act as a guide to how a law should be implemented and, in the case of this particular law, should be issued within three months of the law’s ratification in August?

In response to our persistent questioning, SMRC officials attempted to convince us that there is a difference between legalizing our status and “reconciling” it with the law. The former, they said, addresses the legalization process for websites to be granted a license, while the latter deals with websites that are already legal but need to re-register in order to be brought in line under the new law. To date, we have yet to understand which process we are meant to undertake.

And what about our block? We’ve been blocked on Egyptian ISPs since May 2017, alongside hundreds of others websites in Egypt. While this measure has not succeeded in preventing us from working over the past year and a half, we could not, for the life of us, establish a legal basis for the block in order to contest it.

The process of challenging this anonymously administered block in court over the past year has yielded an equally confusing situation: A judicial ruling in September to refer the case to a panel of Justice Ministry experts for a technical review — a cumbersome process that could take years — essentially put the case on hold indefinitely. The judge also stated that none of the many parties we requested an official response from (including Egypt’s president, the defense minister, the deputy head of the General Intelligence Service, the interior minister and the head of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council) had anything to say about it.

When one of our reporters raised the issue of Mada’s block with one of the nine members of the SMRC, he told her, plainly, “Why would a blocked website register if it is blocked?” Shortly after, he gave a more measured answer: “A blocked website applies for a license normally and pays the fees and gets the license. Then we find out who is responsible for blocking it, and the reason for it being blocked by the Supreme Council of Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and the responsible bodies.”

The confusion that has arisen from the council’s current implementation of the law is not just discouraging to us and those like us — it also seems to be in conflict with the law itself, a law that was problematic enough to begin with. Despite these myriad uncertainties, however, we’ve managed to submit the following materials: An application form that lists our staff members and states our editorial line, among other things; proof that we are an established legal entity with startup capital of LE100,000; a background check of our chief editor, Lina Attalah, and a LE50,000 application fee.

We made the decision to do so after deliberating with a small group of like-minded independent web-based media outlets, some of whom have opted to play the game, with others deciding to either ignore the council’s call, or to halt operations altogether.

So why did we apply?

Because we have never been under any illusions about what we are. Our goal has always been to produce adversarial journalism at a time when we see little of it elsewhere and at a time when the state is looking to exert complete control over the media through censorship and acquisition.

When the new media law was issued, we sought to challenge the restrictions it imposes on journalists’ ability to work freely through our reporting. Nevertheless, we’ve opted to register within its parameters because we still have much to say and do. We’re not ready to go just yet, and if it takes becoming “legal” in the eyes of the state in order to remain operational, then we will attempt to do just that.

We realize it may be sheer wishful thinking to presume that the state is willing to grant us legal status in the first place — they may very well reject us outright. We also realize the perils of being granted legal status only to be subject to endless penalties and fines as a way to permanently cripple us.

We made this choice while thinking about what it means to be radical inside out — not just on the level of producing content in a context that wants to see us silenced, but also in how we produce this content and how we organize ourselves within an environment that would rather we didn’t exist.

If the council approves our application, then here’s to a new beginning of a fully acknowledged presence and ongoing battles to keep doing what we’re doing, with a focus on continuously improving and developing our work. That said, we don’t necessarily believe that this scenario will be a happy ending to a difficult struggle. We’re aware that producing real journalism within the framework of the law and in the current political climate is a high-stakes gamble. But it’s a risk that we’re willing to take.

We won’t be going home in the event that our application is rejected, however. If this is the reality we have to contend with, then we promise to try and reincarnate ourselves into something that can work and that is just as exciting, if not more so, than our current modus operandi. You’ll have to keep following us for more details.

AD