Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Press push and pull

Egypt’s parliament is expected to discuss a controversial amendment to the press law next week, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A legislative amendment that would grant Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi the right to reshuffle the Higher Press Council is expected to be discussed at a plenary session of parliament next week.

The discussion comes after the amendment flew through parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee during a one-hour meeting on 14 June.

The amendment, proposed by independent MP and journalist Mustafa Bakri and 324 other MPs, aims at changing Article 86 of the Press Law (Law 96/1996) to allow the president of the republic to issue a decree that gives him the power to appoint a Higher Press Council for one temporary term until a new law on the regulation of the press is passed by parliament. The term will begin on 1 July this year.

The amendment states that the new Higher Press Council will have the same powers that were granted to the now defunct Upper House, the Shura Council, and will also name new editors and board chairmen of state-run press organisations.

Bakri told the committee meeting that the amendment is an important and necessary measure as the legal term of the current Higher Press Council, in charge of naming editors and board chairmen of national press organisations, will expire at the end of June.

“As you also know, the new laws, which aim at regulating the media and the press, as stipulated by the new constitution, have a lot of articles which will take a long time to be passed by parliament,” Bakri said.

“In light of this fact, it will be illegal for editors and board chairmen of most national press oganisations to remain in their positions for another term. So it was important to hurry up introducing this amendment to fill this legal gap.”

Bakri insisted that the amendment does not have political dimensions.

“The amendment just grants the president of the republic the right to appoint a new Higher Press Council because the legal term of the current council has expired. It no longer has the legal capacity to name new editors and board chairmen of national press organisations,” he said.

Osama Heikal, chairman of parliament’s Media Ccommittee, told MPs, “The amendments grant the president of the republic the right to reshuffle the Higher Press Council for a temporary period of time until new media and press regulation laws are passed.”

He continued, “The new media and press regulation laws, which are currently being revised by the State Council, will take some time in parliament to be discussed and passed, and as a result this legislative amendment is important to help national ‎press organisations perform their job under legal leadership.”

Bakri said the amendment will also help settle a number of legal disputes that will arise after the legal term of the Higher Press Council expires at the end of this month.

Osama Sharshar, an independent MP and journalist, criticised the way the legislative amendment was rammed through the media committee.

“This surprising speed — in around one hour — reminds me of the way laws were passed in less than 24 hours under the regime of [former president Hosni] Mubarak,” said Sharshar, who urged MPs to wait until the new laws on media and press regulations are referred to parliament.

“These laws, which are being revised by the State Council, will be referred to parliament within two weeks and [it is] better to wait for this short period of time instead of resorting to needless exceptional measures,” said Sharshar.

Khaled Youssef, an independent MP and a high-profile film director, slammed the amendment, claiming it gives President Al-Sisi “exceptional powers”.

“Rather than discussing a legislative amendment in record time, and rather than granting the president an exceptional and undemocratic power, we have to exert pressure on the government and the State Council to refer the unified law on the regulation of the media and the press as soon as possible,” Youssef said.

“While President Al-Sisi has announced many times that he wants to make Egypt a modern democratic state, we see that this amendment is veering away from this direction.”

The amendment was also sharply criticised by the head of the Press Syndicate, Yehia Qalash, who is currently facing trial on charges of harbouring two political activists in the syndicate’s headquarters and spreading false news.

“The best way to avoid any legal dispute about editors and board chairmen of national press organisations at the end of June is to speed up debating the new unified press laws before parliament,” Qalash said.

The nine-member Higher Press Council, in a meeting on 16 June, sharply attacked Bakri’s amendment, accusing it of violating the constitution. The council decided that the current editors and board chairmen of national press organisations stay in their positions “until the new press and media laws are passed by parliament”.

Salah Eissa, a high-profile journalist and a member of the council, said Bakri’s amendment violates Article 224 of the constitution, which states that any amendment of laws passed before the promulgation of the national charter in 18 January 2014 should be in line with the charter.

“It also stipulates that it is the National Press Commission that should replace the Higher Press Council to supervise national press organisations,” said Eissa.

Eissa indicated that the Higher Press Council, in cooperation with the government, has finalised the drafting of the new press and media laws. “These laws go in line with the constitution, not to mention that they entrust the National Press Commission with supervising the national press organisations instead of the current Higher Press Council in a logical, constitutional and natural way,” said Eissa.

The council urged Al-Sisi not to sign Bakri’s law even if parliament approves it.

“President Al-Sisi should not approve a legislative amendment that contradicts the constitution,” Eissa said.

In response, Bakri lashed out at the Higher Press Council, insisting that its 16 June decision that current chief editors and board chairmen remain in their positions until new press and media laws are passed by parliament is illegal.

“They should remember that presidential decree No 66 of 2013 granted the Higher Press Council the power to name chief editors and board chairmen for only two years [ending on 30 June],” said Bakri. “While they blame me for submitting an anti-constitutional amendment, they gave themselves the right to challenge the constitution and the law by allowing top editors and board chairmen to stay in their positions in an illegal and constitutional way.”

Joining forces, high-profile journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed told Al-Ahram Weekly that while the new press and media laws will take a long time to be passed by parliament, Bakri’s amendment opens the way for appointing new chief editors and board chairmen in a legal manner. Ahmed, however, wondered whether President Al-Sisi “will agree to sign the amendment into law”.

While the Higher Press Council and the Press Syndicate have urged Al-Sisi not to sign Bakri’s amendment, many believe it is an opportunity to remove several leftist editors and board chairmen who are critical of his policies from office.

“Bakri introduced his amendment as a necessary step to fill a legal gap, but the fact is that it mainly aims to help Al-Sisi get rid of a wide array of top leftist journalists who stand against his decision to cede two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia,” said MP Sharshar.

Heikal said a report about the new legislative amendment will be prepared by the committee to be discussed by parliament during a plenary session.

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