Parliament has signalled its approval of three laws regulating the press and media.
Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told MPs in a plenary session on 11 June that the three laws will now be reviewed by the State Council before being presented to the House of Representatives for a final vote.
The laws, drafted three years ago by a committee which included government experts and representatives from the Press Syndicate, include one major and two ancillary pieces of legislation.
The most important of the drafts, says Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marawan, regulates the activities of media and press organisations and the Higher Council for Media Regulation (HCMR), while complementary laws oversee the National Press Authority (NPA) and the National Media Authority (NMA).
The government had originally submitted a single draft law regulating all three bodies but parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee recommended it be divided into three separate pieces of legislation, said committee head Osama Heikal.
“The first two chapters of the 127-article Law on Regulating the Press and Media and the Higher Council for Media Regulation deal with press and media freedoms, the third deals with the rights of employees, the fourth with the duties of journalists and media workers, the fifth press and media crimes and the ownership of press organisations while the sixth stipulates penalties for any infringements.
“The new laws will automatically lead to the elimination of the Institutional Regulation of the Press and Media Law, known as Law 92/2016,” said Heikal.
“The committee also cancelled provisions that might allow the imprisonment of journalists and media professionals and ensured all forms of press censorship were eliminated in line with Article 72 of the constitution which obliges the state to protect the independence of press organisations and media outlets.”
Abdel-Aal stressed the need to revise the chapter on penalties to ensure it does not violate any international conventions to which Egypt is a signatory.
The opposition 25-30 bloc opposes the new laws which, says bloc member Diaa Dawoud, have been rubber-stamped without adequate discussion.
“The laws were discussed without any prior notification,” says Dawoud, and grant the HCMR, NPA, and NMA draconian powers.
“The NPA, for example, will have the power to close publications or order their privatisation.” Independent MP and journalist Osama Sharshar also complains the laws were subject to inadequate discussion by the Media Committee in closed-door meetings.
“These are controversial laws and should have been discussed in an open and democratic atmosphere rather than in secret meetings by parliament’s Media Committee.”
MP Mustafa Bakri insists the key law regulating the press and media is balanced and objective.
“It strikes a balance between rights and responsibilities and regulates electronic and online media in a clear way,” he said.
Parliamentary Spokesman Salah Hassaballah said the law will ensure information is dealt with in a transparent way while imposing “financial and administrative discipline on press organisations”.
The law regulating the press and media will reduce the number of members of the boards of HCMR, the NPA and the NMA from 13 to nine and separate the roles of the editors-in-chief of state newspapers and board chairmen.
According to Heikal, the Law on Regulating the Press and Media has been reviewed by the Press Syndicate, the Media Workers Syndicate, the Competition Protection and Antitrust Authority, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and the Chamber of the Media Industry.
Articles 33 to 37 deal in detail with the ownership of newspapers and online websites. Article 34 sets a minimum capitalisation for newspaper — LE6 million for a daily, LE2 million for a weekly, LE1 million for a monthly publication and LE100,000 for online news providers.
Articles 48 to 57 deal with the ownership of television channels. Article 52 states that a single company can own a maximum of seven television channels.
Article 53 sets the licensed capital of a company owning a news or public television channel at a minimum of LE50 million, LE30 million for a specialised TV channel, LE15 million for radio stations and LE500,000 for online TV and radio station.
The 55-article law on the NPA tasks it with upgrading the financial and administrative activities of national press organisations.
“The authority will make periodic reviews of press organisations’ performance, name editors-in-chief and the chair of boards and decide whether journalists’ retirement age should be extended from 60 to 65,” said Heikal.
Article 7 states the head of the NPA is to be named by the president and stipulates the NPA’s board comprise representatives from the State Council, Ministry of Finance, national press organisations and two public figures with experience in journalism.
Abdel-Aal offered reassurances the NPA law does not seek to privatise national press organisations.
“When we were drafting the constitution we opted to establish a National Press Authority to exercise independent oversight of national press organisations rather than privatise them or place them under the supervision of the then Shura Council,” he said.
Abdel-Aal was responding to concerns raised by Bakri over Article 35 of the law which stipulates the board of national press organisations include seven journalists and 10 public figures.
“Why should the number of public figures, who will be experts in finance, exceed the number of journalists,” asked Bakri.
Bakri also argued the retirement age of journalists “should be extended to 65 as is the case for judges and other professions and not left for the NPA to decide” on a case-by-case basis.
“The NPA is unlikely to be objective or neutral when deciding on who should continue working. It would be far better to state as a general rule that journalists retire at 65.”
“The State Council’s revision of the law will include Article 5 which deals with the retirement age of journalists at national press organisations,” said Abdel-Aal.
The 37-article NMA law “will regulate the activities and performance of the state-owned ERTU [Egyptian Radio and Television Union] and online websites affiliated with ERTU,” said Heikal.
The NMA will be responsible for overseeing all ERTU’s television and radio stations.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Media overhaul