Monday,19 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Monday,19 March, 2018
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Draft press law defies threats to profession

Two draft press laws seek to unify the legislation regulating the media, Amira Howeidy reports 

Supreme Press Council
Supreme Press Council
Al-Ahram Weekly

After 150 meetings over the span of one year a self-appointed media group says it has finished drafting a bill to address myriad overlapping media laws and threats to the profession.

One draft law scraps prison sentences for publishing offences and replaces them with fines. A second, unified law for print, broadcast and electronic media outlets contains 197 articles. It includes “transitional” clauses that cancel existing publishing-related legislation included in a host of laws that unrelated, or indirectly related, to the media, including the regulations governing Al-Azhar. The law stipulates the setting up of three bodies to oversee and manage national and privately-owned media.

The laws were released during a press conference held at the Press Syndicate this week so as to allow time for a debate within the press community before they are submitted to the prime minister on Sunday. Although little discussion took place during the presser, a debate on the group’s formation, mandate and the outcome of their yearlong efforts has been brewing for a while.

The draft laws’ primary achievement rests on the fact that its authors have produced a single piece of legislation to regulate all-media outlets. Hitherto the media has been subject to at least four separate pieces of legislation, much of it rooted in the 1950’s and 60’s when the private press was nationalised.

“This is a historic day,” said Press Syndicate Chairman Yehia Qalash when the drafts were released on Sunday. “These laws are part of the Egyptian people’s struggle.”

Yet by late evening President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had ratified an anti-terrorism law that criminalises – among other things — the publishing of information or news that contradicts official statements. The controversial law was swiftly drafted following the assassination of prosecutor general Hisham Barakat on 29 June.

Articles penalising such publishing offences with prison terms were scrapped from the draft following a massive uproar among the press community. In its current form the legislation punishes reporters who contradict official accounts with a hefty fine of between LE 200,000 and LE 500,000 ($25,000 to $62,500). Offenders may also be banned by a court order from practicing their job for up to a year.

Approval of the anti-terrorism law had a chilling effect on the authors of the draft press laws, many of whom are sympathetic to the regime.

“This is a government that seems bent on issuing laws that expose deep-seated hostility to freedoms and human rights,” says columnist Hussein Abdel-Razek, a member of the committee which drafted the law. “There are officials who don’t seem to have read the constitution, whose words regularly contradict its articles.”

The 50-member media group was formed over a year ago by the Press Syndicate, the government-appointed Supreme Press Council, representatives from the state-run TV and Radio Union, media and law university professors and veteran journalists. Although self-appointed, the committee was acknowledged by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb who met with its representatives and supported their work authoring the legislation.

The group was created to ensure press-related articles in the 2014 constitution, which prohibit both censorship and freedom restricting penalties such as punitive detention, are embodied on the statute book.

The draft unified press law scraps legislation that makes insulting the president a criminal offence. It also proposes the licensing of print or electronic publications by notification, while broadcast media outlets will require licensing from the proposed Supreme Council for Organising the Media. The council’s 15 members are to be nominated by eight bodies, including the presidency, parliament, the Press Syndicate and other quasi-independent organisations. Two further organisations will be formed in the same vein to oversee national print and broadcast media.

Despite the cautious wording of the draft law its authors expect it to face opposition from the government. “Articles scrapping penalties for offending the president are expected to cause a problem,” says Khaled Al-Balshi, an elected member of the Press Syndicate council.

Skeptics warn that in the current climate, and in light of the new anti-terrorism law which punishes reporters and not terrorists, the draft will face a difficult passage.

According to a June report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 18 reporters are currently in jail. Officials deny this, arguing no journalists have been jailed on charges connected to their work.

“The anti-terrorism law effectively tells journalists they cannot report something even if they witnessed it when official statements deny that what they saw happened,” says columnist Ayman Al-Sayyad.

“If such a law is going to deter terrorists, how do we explain the persistence of bombs?”

The unified law’s authors, however, are undeterred.

“We will need public support and lobbying to pressure the government to accept our draft legislation,” says Abdel-Razek. “It is essential we try.”

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