Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Media muddle

Mona El-Nahhas reports on the uncertain future of the unified press and media draft law following this week’s arrest of the syndicate’s chairman

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the wake of recent government reprisals taken against journalists, passage of a law protecting the freedom of the press and media seems remote.

On Monday, Press Syndicate Chairman Yehia Qallash, Secretary-General Gamal Abdel-Rehim and Freedom Committee head Khaled Al-Balshi were taken to Qasr Al-Nil police station where they were remanded in custody for four days pending an investigation.

The three leading syndicate figures face charges of using the syndicate’s headquarters to shelter two journalists against whom an arrest warrant had been issued, and of spreading false news related to the police raid on the syndicate’s headquarters on 1 May.

After a 12-hour investigation, the prosecution early on Monday released Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim on LE10,000 bail each. The three refused to pay the bail and spent the night at Cairo’s Qasr Al-Nil Police Station. On Monday night, however, the LE10,000 bail per defendant was paid by lawyer Tarek Negada against their will. 

On the same day, the Cairo Court for Urgent Affairs began hearing a lawsuit that calls for imposing judicial sequestration on the Press Syndicate. The lawsuit was filed by Hussein Al-Mataani, the founder of the so-called Independent Press Syndicate in 1998. In his lawsuit, Al-Mataani, who received a seven-year jail term in 2004 on charges of fraud, claimed that he wants to save the syndicate from attempts by Qallash’s council to politicise its role.

Appalled by the measures targeting the Press Syndicate, which have been described as humiliating the profession, journalists are now concerned that any talk about the government’s intention to guarantee an independent press appears unrealistic.

This week’s events came just three days after Ahmed Qotb, deputy chairman of the State Council, told the daily Al-Ahram that the draft law regulating press and media affairs has yet to be submitted to the council’s legislation department. This contradicts a cabinet statement on 16 May that it had approved the draft law and sent it to the State Council.

Minister of Planning Ashraf Al-Arabi told reporters following a cabinet meeting on 16 May that the draft law, which received wide-ranging support from the government and journalists alike, was on its way to the State Council, which was to review the draft law’s articles. According to Al-Arabi, the draft law would be referred to parliament for endorsement soon after the State Council’s revised copy had been received.

The unified press and media draft law was prepared by the National Committee of Press and Media Legislation, an independent entity that includes prominent writers, journalists and legal experts. The draft, the result of a year of continuous work, was submitted to the cabinet in September last year. It awaits approval.

Members of the Press Syndicate Council welcomed the cabinet statements regarding the approval of the draft law, viewing it as a positive step that would help improve the current tense relationship between the state and journalists. The cabinet’s statements, introducing slight amendments to the draft that would have no significant impact on its content, doubled the sense of relief among journalists.

However, members of the committee that prepared the draft soon discovered that the article that annuls imprisonment for cases involving publishing had been changed after it was reported that the Justice Ministry opposed it.

“For technical reasons related to the legal text of the draft law, it was difficult to directly stipulate the annulment of a jail penalty in publishing cases,” Judge Magdi Al-Agati minister of House of Representatives affairs, noted in previous statements.

A committee headed by the Justice Ministry and other ministries concerned will be formed to discuss ways of annulling prison sentences included in the Penal Code, Al-Arabi said during the 16 May press conference. He did not set a date for forming such a committee.

The National Committee for Press and Media Legislation amended four articles in the Penal Code that allowed for jail terms in publication offences. These amendments were rejected by the Justice Ministry.

“It does not matter who makes the amendments. However, it is important for the government and parliament to abide by constitutional articles that ban all freedom-restricting penalties in publishing cases,” Salah Eissa, secretary-general of the Supreme Press Council and a draft lawmaker, said in an article published on 28 May in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

In the article, Eissa wondered about the fate of the draft law, which he said is unclear. He referred to recent statements by Osama Heikal, head of the Press and Media Committee in the House of Representatives. Heikal suggested holding several sessions in which the draft law would be subject to broad public discussion before being referred to parliament.

Since parliament is already committed to reviewing legislation up until the current parliamentary term ends in September it seems unlikely the press law will be endorsed this term, especially if Heikal’s suggestion is taken into consideration, Eissa argued in his article.

Referring the draft law to parliament is not seen as a way to end the concerns of journalists. For constitution-complementing laws, such as the unified press and media draft law, their endorsement requires the approval of two-thirds of MPs. Because a majority of MPs took a hostile stand against journalists during the recent crisis between the Press Syndicate and the Interior Ministry, winning approval is another challenge facing the press community.

The 227-article draft law was in general praised for managing to strike a balance between media freedoms and duties and the need to regulate the media’s performance after five years of chaos. It bans any censorship of newspapers and media outlets and prohibits their confiscation or shutdown except in cases related to national security. It also prohibits any restrictions on the right of journalists to access information.

At the same time, the draft imposes heavy fines on publications and media outlets that commit professional violations as stipulated in the law.

Divided into nine chapters, together with a final chapter on general and transitional rules, the draft outlines the duties and rights of journalists, ownership of the media and the administration of press institutions affiliated to the state. It also defines the formation and duties of the three councils that will be in charge of press and media affairs: the Higher Council for Media Regulation, National Authority for Press and National Authority for Media.

If the draft law is endorsed, it will help replace current chief editors and board chairmen at state-owned newspapers whose term in office has ended and whose legal status has become controversial.

Still, certain reservations were directed at the draft. The appointment of the heads of the three national press and media councils by the president was viewed as allowing state interference in the media. Opposing voices also said that the draft restricts the constitutional right to issue newspapers and online news websites by notification.

To receive a licence for online news websites or newspapers, a company should have capital ranging from LE500,000 to LE3 million. This condition was viewed by the draft’s critics as allowing businessmen to monopolise the media.

It also banned individuals from publishing newspapers. The draft also did not clarify the legal status of the hundreds of journalists who work for online press outlets and their eligibility for joining the Press Syndicate.


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