The Journalist Syndicate board held a contentious meeting on Tuesday over a controversial set of proposed media violation bylaws being considered by the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) that saw two board members walk out in protest.
Last week, the SMRC decided to postpone the adoption of the bylaws for one week to allow time for the Journalists Syndicate and the Media Professionals Syndicate to comment on the proposal.
The SMRC has yet to release an official draft of the regulations, but a statement published on its website on November 21 did note that the council’s complaints committee had completed a draft of the bylaws. The statement, which was later removed, came shortly after the complaints committee’s draft was leaked to the media.
A range of stiff penalties were listed in that leaked draft — including blocking websites, suspending broadcasts and imposing hefty fines — for media organizations that violate a wide set of ambiguous rules, including using anonymous sources or “insulting the values and beliefs of society.” The draft sparked widespread opposition, with over 600 journalists, writers, politicians and public figures signing a petition calling for its abolition.
Mohamed Kamel, a member of the Journalist Syndicate board, told Mada Masr that a number of amendments were agreed upon during Tuesday’s meeting and were to be presented to the SMRC on Wednesday. The SMRC postponed its Wednesday meeting, however, as the head of the council, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, had traveled to Saudi Arabia to attend a regional media conference.
Among the proposed amendments, the board requested the cancellation of all financial penalties. If the State Council — which reviews all proposed legislation — approves the legality of financial penalties, the board asked that the maximum penalty not exceed LE100,000, instead of a maximum of LE500,000 as originally suggested by the SMRC in the leaked draft.
Kamel said that there was also a heated discussion in the meeting on Article 3 of the proposed bylaws, which penalizes “whoever accuses, insults or threatens the public, or a segment of it.” Board members argued that the text contravenes the Penal Code, which stipulates that crimes of insult are limited to specific individuals. The discussion concluded with a demand to remove the article unless the State Council approves its legality.
The Journalists Syndicate board also called for amending Article 11 of the proposed bylaws to read “anyone who uses or permits the usage of expressions or images that call for an incitation of violence, hatred, discrimination, sectarianism or racism shall be penalized.” In its current form, Article 11 also punishes anyone who “threatens or insults public institutions, harms public interests, stirs up the public, insults other opinions, publishes or broadcasts unsubstantiated news or rumors, or transfers information from social media sites without validation,” which the board requested be removed.
Kamel presented a scathing memo to the board on Tuesday morning – before the meeting – asking for more drastic amendments to the SMRC proposal. The memo states that “the bylaws are an additional measure to enforce the media’s complete silence through punitive provisions that criminalize media practice and journalism except within the limits allowed by the government and national security.”
“Just as the bylaws undermine the authority of the judiciary in their judgment of criminal penalties, they also challenge the authority of trade unions to penalize their members,” the memo adds. “For the first time, the regulation codifies a ban on appearing in the media on grounds as loose as ‘national security considerations.’”
The memo also points out that “the list violates the legal principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty and enacts a new legal principle that opens the door to punishing defendants without proving charges against them, through the provision in the first article. It even made it possible for the SMRC, in Article 8, to issue sanctions without an investigation, whereby the article states that investigations are permissible in certain cases and obligatory in others.”
Two board members, Mohamed Saad Abdel Hafiz and Hatem Zakaria, walked out of the meeting in protest, while three members, Mahmoud Kamel, Amr Badr, and Gamal Abdel Rahim, threatened to withdraw during the discussion on Article 3.
Abdel Hafiz explained that his withdrawal conveys his rejection of the entire list of sanctions proposed by the SMRC. Zakaria, however, said that his withdrawal reflects his rejection of a number of recent decisions made by the SMRC in relation to the proposals, without specifying which.
“I withdrew and registered my withdrawal in the meeting minutes, stating that I objected to discussing the list on principle, because it violates the law and the Constitution, especially given that the Journalists Syndicate’s response is not binding on the SMRC,” Abdel Hafiz said.