Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Fight for freedom

Journalists are fighting to protect their draft law from what they say are government attempts to distort it, reports Mona El-Nahhas

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Controversial statements made by Justice Minister Ahmed Al-Zend are being viewed by some observers as revealing government intentions to obstruct a unified draft law for the press and media. The bill was drafted by journalists in September last year. The draft has since been submitted to the cabinet and the presidency.

Talking to the state-owned magazine Al-Mussawer last week, Al-Zend said the government is not bound by the new press law. “We will just take the articles that conform with the draft laws we are preparing now,” Al-Zend said, labelling the new law “unconstitutional”.

According to Al-Zend, there should be three separate laws regulating the formation and work of the three press and media councils stated in the constitution rather than one unified law.

“We are not seeking to clash with the government,” Yehia Qallash, chairman of the Press Syndicate, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “However, at the same time we will not have our hands tied by an alternative press law to replace our own.”

Sources at the Justice Ministry previously stated that three pieces of legislation regulating press and media affairs will be presented to the House of Representatives in a matter of weeks. Al-Zend’s three laws legalise the work and formation of the Higher Council for Media Regulation, National Authority for Press and National Authority for Media. “This way, all constitutional articles granting press freedom would have no place in any of Al-Zend’s three laws,” Qallash said.

“I think it’s a conspiracy targeting press freedom,” said prominent writer Youssef Al-Qaeed, who is also an appointed MP. In an interview with the independent daily Al-Tahrir on Saturday, Al-Qaeed said he was concerned over an upcoming clash between the government and the media “that we don’t need during this current stage”.

Al-Zend’s statements contradict what was previously declared by members of the current and former cabinets who have consistently expressed their respect and commitment to the unified press and media draft law.

“The unified draft law, which was the result of one year of continuous work and which paves the way for a new future for the media, now faces attempts from certain parties to distort it and empty it of its content,” said a statement issued by the Press Syndicate on Tuesday 26 January. The statement noted that journalists “will not allow anyone to waste such great effort” and will only accept the draft law, which enjoys general consensus among the press community.

A meeting was held at the headquarters of the Press Syndicate on 28 January to see which steps were needed to protect the draft. Journalists stressed that they reject any alternative draft law “that would be a step in the wrong direction”. They also expressed their readiness to protect their rights as guaranteed in the 2014 Constitution.

During the meeting, participants said they would not accept “distorted explanations” of the constitution’s articles “that would lead to fragmenting the draft”.

At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that a delegation of journalists will conduct a dialogue with the cabinet over the draft law and take its suggestions into consideration. Meanwhile, the draft law will become part of a public dialogue on all TV channels affiliated to the media industry chamber, together with state-owned and private newspapers. Another meeting will be held on 10 February to decide future moves.

Qallash told the Weekly on Monday that an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Sherif Ismail will be held soon. According to Qallash, Ismail stressed that dialogue between the Press Syndicate and the cabinet should continue and that Al-Zend’s statements do not reflect the government’s position towards the unified press and media law. “The coming days will reveal whether Al-Zend’s statements represent a personal stance. Anyway, we made things clear and are now waiting for a government response,” Qallash said.

While meeting a delegation from the Press Syndicate, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told journalists that no government legislation regulating the press and media has been sent to parliament so far. Abdel-Aal pledged that no draft laws regulating press and media affairs would be endorsed “against the will of the press community”.

Before becoming speaker, Abdel-Aal, a constitutional law professor, was a key member of the national committee for press and media legislation that prepared the draft law and included prominent writers, media people and legal experts. Asked how the press community would act if Al-Zend’s draft laws were submitted to parliament, Qallash said there were 46 journalists who are parliamentary members and “eligible to present our own draft law which strikes a balance between media freedom and duties”.

Work on the 230-article unified press and media law, which took nearly a year, is divided into six chapters together with a final chapter that includes general and transitional rules. The draft deals with press and media freedoms, duties of journalists, rules governing the ownership of newspapers, the formation and ownership of media outlets, the administration of state-owned press institutions and a chapter dedicated to the three councils regulating press and media affairs, as stipulated in constitutional articles 211, 212 and 213.

Besides drafting the unified press and media law, the 50-member national committee for press and media legislation prepared another four-article amendment of the penal code related to publication offensives. The amendment bans jail terms stemming from publication offences. Articles 70, 71 and 72 of the constitution grant greater freedom and independence to journalists.

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