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A critical eye on the law for organising media

Egypt's draft law for organising media, currently awaiting parliamentary debate and approval, has worrying structural defects

Mohamed Shuman , Saturday 11 Jun 2016
Views: 3111
Views: 3111

The good news is that the cabinet has sent the law for organising media to parliament for discussion and approval, after reportedly it made slight amendments to the legislation developed by the 50-person committee, which is an independent committee of journalists and media personnel.

However, “A beautiful thing is never perfect”! Because the parliament’s agenda is brimful, there are some expectations that it will not be able to discuss and pass the bill during the current parliamentary session. Perhaps it will be postponed to autumn.

This definitely means an increase in chaos and decline in professionalism within our media, which is working without a proper legislative framework or regulations, and only by some old laws that are not suitable because they do not legalise the private media and are not compatible with the huge developments in communication and media technology at present.

Of course, it is better that parliament discuss the new media law and make some amendments before passing it, because the 50-person committee’s bill comprises structural defects I wrote about.

The most significant are the following:

First, the bill granted a wide mandate of executive authorities to the Higher Council for Organising Media, the National Commission of Journalism and the National Commission for Audio-Visual Media without presenting guarantees and mechanisms for societal monitoring of its members.

Consequently, it does not prevent them from being transformed into a despotic few, or a financially and media benefitting few. I personally have legitimate fears regarding the choice of members for the three bodies from among the dinosaurs of journalism and media.

Therefore, I suggest appointing at least half of the members from young journalists who have spent at least 10 years practising the profession.

Second, there are no mechanisms for ensuring the three bodies are financially independent from the government. The bill states that the three bodies will receive annual financial aid from the state budget and percentages of licenses, permits and research and study earnings while ensuring that conflicts of interest do not occur.

This is a confusing matter and isn't defined by any rules. For how can we be assured that no conflict of interest exists for an authority providing licenses or research and training services in return for a financial percentage?

Third, the bill stipulates that the three commissions members be totally devoted to their work and freeze all partisan activity. But it does not clarify the matter of appearing in the media as guests, or whether media counsel can be provided or not.

These are matters of extreme importance in order to ensure that no conflict of interest happens.

What’s strange is that the bill granted each of the three bodies the right to set its own financial system, salaries and bonuses without reference to the restrictions of governmental rules and regulations. This raises questions about whether the maximum wage limit, applied to the government and public sector, will be applied on the three bodies' members or not.

Fourth, the bill discriminates between the private and public media, for it has focused on the status and rights of journalists working in the state-owned newspapers, radio and TV channels and disregarded their colleagues in private newspapers and satellite channels.

It has also granted the state-owned newspapers huge privileges, such as rights in investment, importation and others. These are activities surpassing the capabilities and expertise of private newspapers.

Moreover, previous experiences have proved the failure and corruption in most investment projects started by state-owned newspapers.

Fifth, there is exaggeration in setting financial preconditions for publishing newspapers and magazines, whether in paper form or electronic via internet sites. For it stipulated that the paid capital should not be less than three million Egyptian pounds if the newspaper is a daily, one million Egyptian pounds if it is weekly, EGP 500,000 if it is monthly; EGP 500,000 if it is an electronic newspaper, EGP 500,000 if it is a daily regional newspaper, EGP 200,000 if it is a weekly regional newspaper, and EGP 100,000 if it is a monthly regional newspaper.

This is for the purpose of guaranteeing the rights of those working in these entities. This argument is countered by another saying that it is possible to set up a fund to help workers in financially cash-strapped newspapers.

Sixth, the bill is severely restricting of new media for it stipulates that the capital for a digital TV station, or channel on the "web," is at least half a million Egyptian pounds.

It has also set fines that are not less than a quarter of a million pounds and do not exceed half a million pounds for anyone who provides unlicensed digital broadcasting.

Thus, the bill is encircling the new media and citizen's journalism. Moreover, it fights youth initiatives towards a free media on meager expenses that are able at the same time to resist the influence of advertisers and the hegemony of big media establishments.

Seventh, the bill opened the door to exceptions and discrimination among journalists for it stated that it is allowable to extend journalists' service in state-owned newspapers to 65 years, and also combining the posts of CEO and editor-in-chief in the case of necessity, without clarifying the nature and conditions of such necessity.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).

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