About two years ago, Egypt's new constitution was issued, stating an important group of freedoms and guarantees for practising freedom of opinion and expression and devoting three articles to the organisation of media through setting up three bodies; the Higher Council for Media Organisation, the National Commission of Journalism and the National Commission of Media.
The first is concerned with organising audio-visual media matters, newspapers and digital newspapers, as well as being responsible for ensuring and protecting media freedom, issuing permits, preventing monopoly and supervising the soundness of financing. The National Commission of Journalism administers the state-owned newspaper establishments, while the National Commission of Media administers the state-owned television and radio channels.
Since the constitution's issuance, a debate has begun on activating the constitution's articles regarding organising the media and who will transform them into laws and specific measures; will the president take the initiative in the absence of the parliament and through an understanding with the journalists and media personnel and issue these laws, or shall we wait for the election of the parliament?
It seems that waiting for the parliament is the choice that all parties agreed upon without a dialogue. It is a choice that allows the continuance of chaos in Egyptian media and being indulged in politicising and taking unprofessional approaches. Waiting for the parliament also for issuing laws organising journalism and media requires several months for parliamentary committees to convene and work.
So the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, the Higher Council for Journalism and the Radio and Television Personnel Syndicate (under construction) took the initiative and formed a joint committee comprising 50 persons from those working in the field of journalism and a number of media and law professors in order to develop a proposed project for a unified law for both media and journalism.
Last month and after a long series of meetings – which took about a year – the committee announced that it finished a complete project comprising six chapters: the first about journalism and media freedom and the duties of media personnel; the second about newspaper ownership; the third on setting-up means of media and its ownership; the fourth on the national newspapers establishments; the fifth about criteria for choosing editors-in-chief and other officials; and the sixth dealt with the new organising bodies.
The new proposed project included the abolishment of publishing information on crimes regarding all citizens; the election of the majority of the board of directors and general assembly members in the state-owned newspapers; and not to appoint any member in those bodies for more than two consecutive rounds. The proposed project also encompassed disciplinary penalties for those breaking the law.
We can say that the proposed law is an important step towards reorganising journalism and media, activating the constitution's articles, defining the relationships between the three bodies for organising the media and attempting to enhance journalists' and media personnel's role in drafting laws and regulations that safeguard media freedom and take into account the special nature of media work.
On the other hand, the proposed project dispels the accusations directed at media personnel of being lazy and unable to achieve consensus concerning law articles that regulate media performance, and affirms to the government and the society that there is a ready proposed law that the next parliament can adopt or modify. That is to say, the parliament will not start from scratch.
Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab has formed a committee comprising media personnel and legal experts to draft a proposed law. However, the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, the Radio and Television Personnel Syndicate and the Higher Council for Journalism's swift move closed the door in the face of this semi-governmental committee, which met regularly and finalised a proposed law but did not reveal it.
Thus, the new parliament, according to its political inclinations and the balance of powers within it, has to choose between the 50-person committee's proposed law and the semi-governmental committee's proposed law. It is most likely that the parliament will adopt both proposed laws and try to reconcile between them, especially since the 50-person committee's proposed law is not far from the visions and approaches of the state.
These visions and approaches have been inherited since the state's monopoly on radio broadcasting in 1934 and on television broadcasting in 1960, the nationalisation of newspapers and the setting-up of gigantic bureaucratic bodies called the national newspaper establishment.
Due to the space allotted for this article I will ask for the reader's permission to raise four main observations regarding the unified law for both media and journalism which the 50-person committee announced. Perhaps it may be of benefit to modify and fix some law articles.
First, the proposed law granted a wide mandate of executive authorities to the Higher Council for Organising Media, the National Commissions of Journalism and of Audio-Visual Media, to the extent that we can say that it has made them a ministry of information and surveillance over all public and private media. This is logical provided the ensuring of financial independence for the three bodies and preventing its members from being transformed into a despotic few or a financially and media benefitting few. The proposed law did not set sufficient guarantees and mechanisms to achieve this and the financial resources are in the government's hands or private newspaper and satellite channel owners. It also did not lay down rules and mechanisms to ensure that conflict of interests does not take place:
- The proposed law stated that annual financial aid would be from the state's budget, thus it preserves the dominance of the government over state media.
- To receive a certain percentage of the licenses, permits and the research and study earnings with ensuring that conflict of interests does not take place. This is a confusing matter and is not defined by rules, for how can authorities providing licenses or research and training services receive a financial percentage and at the same time ensure that conflicts of interest do not happen?
- To receive unconditional grants, donations and aid.
- The proposed law stipulated that the three commission members be totally devoted to their work and freeze their partisan activity, but it did not clarify whether they have the right to appear as media guests or provide media counsel. These are matters of extreme importance for ensuring that a conflict of interest does not happen.
- The proposed law granted each of the three bodies the right to set its own financial system, salaries and bonuses without the restriction of governmental rules and regulations. This raises questions about whether the maximum wage limit applied in the public sector will be applied for the members of the three bodies.
Second, the proposed law disregards the status of journalism and journalists in private newspapers and satellite channels and partisan newspapers despite their superiority over the state-owned newspapers and television channels, which have suffered a decline in influence in the wake of continuous developments in media technology.
The proposed law focuses on the state-owned newspapers, radio and TV channels and granted them huge economic and investment privileges, including crossing out debts to the state.
These are privileges that private newspapers and satellite channels do not get and this raises legal, economic and even political problems. Some see that it is futile to distinguish between public and private sectors in the field of media and it is economically not beneficial to continue supporting the state media which is encumbered with over-employment and bureaucratic systems and is presenting propagandist content for the government's benefit. Thus, it has driven wide sections of media audiences away from it.
Third, there is lengthiness and redundancy as well as detailed descriptions in several matters that can be summarised or use references to rules and regulations. As such, the proposed law comprises 207 articles. It seems that the climate of mistrust has driven those who drafted the law to elaboration and redundancy which leaves no space for the exertion of any effort for those setting rules and regulations or CEOs and editors-in-chief.
In spite of all this, there are obvious exceptions and mysteries in some articles, such as Article 84, which allows the extension of a journalist's service in state-owned newspapers to 65-years-old, as well as combining the posts of chief executive officer and editor-in-chief "when necessary" without clarifying the nature and conditions of necessity (Article 96).
Fourth, the proposed law shows strictness in setting financial guarantees in order to publish newspapers and magazines in print or electronic form. This can be considered siding with the rich and waging an overt war against the electronic journalism and the new media, for it stipulated that the paid capital should not be less than three million Egyptian pounds if the newspaper is daily; a million Egyptian pounds if it is weekly; 500,000 if it is monthly, an electronic newspaper, or a daily regional newspaper; 200,000 if it is a weekly regional newspaper; and 100,000 if it is a monthly regional newspaper.
This is for the purpose of guaranteeing the rights of those working in these organisations. This argument is countered by another, which states that it is possible to set up a fund for helping workers in the financially cash-strapped newspapers. I believe that this increase in the required capital for issuing newspapers constitutes an obstacle to many citizens wishing to issue new newspapers, especially electronic ones and internet radio and television broadcast, which some resort to because they do not need huge capital or big expenses.
The worst is that the proposed law stipulates that the capital of the digital TV station or channel on the internet is no less than half-a-million Egyptian pounds. It also set fines that are no less than a quarter-of-a-million pounds and do not exceed half-a-million pounds for anyone who provides unlicensed digital broadcasting.
The proposed law is therefore encircling the new media and citizen journalism and fights the youth's initiatives for presenting free media for meagre expenses, thereby resisting the influence of advertisers and sidestepping the hegemony of big media establishments.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).