On December 26, 2016, Egyptian President, Abdel Fatah Al Sisi ratified a new media law, creating three new bodies that would regulate Egyptian print, broadcast and electronic media.
The new law, which was approved by parliament, introduces three main articles in the Egyptian Constitution:
- 211 - The establishment of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR).
- 212 - The National Press Council (NPC).
- 213 - The National Media Council (NMC).
This law repeals law No 13 of 1979, and its modification of law No 223 in 1989 of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union that used to regulate the broadcasting sector in Egypt, which was challenging in many ways. The law repeals as well Part IV of Law No 96 of 1996 regulating the press, and any provision contrary to the provisions of the accompanying law shall be repealed.
Among the responsibilities of the SCMR are the approval of the received notifications for establishing newspapers and granting the necessary licenses for the establishment and operation of the audio, visual and digital media. The SCMR is also to develop and apply the necessary controls and standards to ensure that the means and institutions of the media and journalists adhere to the principles and ethics of the profession.
The new law stipulates the independence of the national newspapers and their non-subordination to the government, and the provision of its public mandate through the representation of different ideologies and opinions that serve the public interest. These will operate within the National Press Council (NPC) stated in the new law. Yet, independency from the government is not going to happen at once as national newspapers suffer from several managerial and financial problems and they still depend on the government subsidy to maintain their sustainability.
As for the broadcast sector, the law states that new procedures should be applied to the broadcasters regarding the issuance of a broadcasting license. The SCMR is the new body to grant the necessary licenses for the establishment and operation of the audio, visual and digital media. Before the issuance of the new law, the private stations who could operate only through satellite used to the General Authority for Investment (GAFI) and arranged with the Nile Sat and National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA) to get their license issued and frequencies assigned. Yet, the GAFI as a licence-issuing body is irrelevant to the process, as it does not have committees to look into content or examine its impact or enforce penalties.
Under the new law, the public and private media will be supervised by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, thus allowing the state-owned media to be converted into a real public service broadcasting system, and enabling the private media to flourish within policies that guarantee fair competition. However, the conversion of the NMC into a public service broadcasting requires a set of policies such as: an independent board representing the public; accountability to the legislature rather than government; clear terms of reference for the board which are set out in law; transparent mechanisms for appointing members of the board that are neither controlled by government nor a political party; a clear public service mandate.
Print media falls within the restructuring as well. Since the introduction of national newspapers, the government has exerted control over their shares and the appointment of the editors-in-chiefs, and uses them as a tool for propagating its agenda and for public mobilisation.
According to Salah Eissa, a veteran Egyptian journalist, the new law stipulates the independence of the national newspapers and their non-subordination to the government, and the provision of its public mandate through the representation of different ideologies and opinions that serve the public interest. This will operate within the National Press Council (NPC) stated in the new law. Yet, being independent from the government requires a visit to the funding mechanisms which still depend on the government subsidy and advertising expenditure as main tools for funding their papers.
In 2014, the new constitution eased the process of obtaining a license to issue a newspaper; according to Article 70, any citizen has the right to issue a newspaper and this is issued through notification within a maximum of 40 days (Egyptian constitution, 2014). Before then it was legally difficult to obtain a license to own and to operate a private newspaper, and one could only have obtained it through a private shareholder company with many restrictions.
Legislation that directly and indirectly deals with freedom of expression and of the press should be revisited by the NPC, especially laws that were issued 80 years ago, such as the Publication Law (enacted in 1936), and the Penal Code of 1937, among others. The issuance of an Access to Information law is among the main demands of all journalist and media professionals.
Censorship in the mainstream media is tolerated as a form of responsibility. It is quite difficult to publish or broadcast criticism of the system or to direct criticism to officers of the state, military and security forces.
In a transitional period, there is always an indirect struggle between the media people who want to maintain the freedom they have achieved, and between the state that wants to retain its power over the media. Reports like Reporters without Borders ranked Egypt as 161 out of 185 countries in terms of freedom of the press, and pointed to a number of blocked websites and detained journalists. On the other hand, the Minister of Interior states that the blocked websites are committing crimes, such as using hate speech to incite violence among segments of society. The Egyptian Amnesty Committee that was established by the president states that the names in some of the records at the international institutions are not updated as many of the journalists who were jailed, have since been freed by a presidential decree. Some of its members said that they communicated with the Reporters without Borders organisations and they referred that there might be a lack of communication between both sides.
Theoretically he constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of the press and freedom of publication. However, there are laws that affect these freedoms and are used to discipline journalists whose reporting is critical.
For example, although Egypt signed the UN covenant on Civil and Political Rights CCPR, where article 18 and 19 emphasise the freedom of opinion and expression, there are laws that restrict freedom of publishing and of the press.
According to the imprints law no 20/1936, the Ministerial Council can ban any publication issued abroad from being sold inside Egypt. According to the same law, a newspaper can be closed if it wasn’t published in three successive months or in the case of any irregularity.
The penal code also includes many articles that hinder the free flow of information, in addition to the vague terms which makes it difficult for journalists to report on hard news. The code itself contains many jail penalties under the press crime sections, such as “encouraging or tempting on coup against regime or on changing the fundamental principles of the constitution (art 174), discrimination against a certain sect of the people and disturbing the public peace (art 176), harming the social decorum (art178).”