Osama Heikal, the head of parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, says the first reading of a government drafted law regulating the media is now complete.
On Sunday Heikal told reporters the committee will begin a second reading of the law next week, a process that should be completed by the end of the month allowing a press conference to be held early in April to unveil details of the legislation.
Heikal said 35 meetings have been held till now to discuss the law.
“Discussions have led to changes being proposed to 101 of the law’s 127 articles. The articles have been modified in coordination with the Higher Council for Media Regulation [HCMR], the National Press Organisation, the National Media Organisation, the Press and Media Workers’ Syndicates, the Chamber of Media Industries and the National Council for Telecommunication Regulation.”
Heikal revealed the committee’s closed-door meeting on Sunday led to a toughening of the penalties proposed for illegal and unlicensed broadcasting by satellite channels and raised the possibility of a separate law — 25 articles drafted by MP Atef Nasser — being enacted to regulate online media activities.
Nasser, the parliamentary spokesman of the Future of a Nation Party, said his draft covers the online media activities of publishing houses, news agencies, press organisations, advertising and commercial businesses and satellite audio-visual channels and stipulates that the online activities of each of the above should be run by an executive manager.
“The law sets the criteria to be met for someone to be licensed as an online manager, and requires all online media activity to be licensed” — initially for 10 years, a term that can, under certain conditions, be renewed — and stipulates which authorities will be in charge of licensing such activity, says Nasser.
It also imposes penalties on unlicensed online activities and content violations such as disseminating fake news, false statements and misinformation.
Nasser told parliamentary reporters that the goal of his proposed legislation is “to impose discipline on online media activities”.
“New kinds of media activity have proliferated in recent years and many of them spread fake news,” he said.
Heikal, a former information minister, said Nasser’s proposals were discussed in coordination with parliament’s legislative and constitutional affairs and the telecommunication and information technology committees.
Though Nasser’s draft includes some significant articles Heikal said “the committee decided — for the time being — to focus discussions on the new government-drafted media and press regulation law which includes a chapter on online activities.”
Independent MP Osama Sharshar told parliamentary correspondents it was unjustifiable that discussions of the new media and press regulation law are being held behind closed doors.
“This is an important and potentially controversial law tackling the media in general, not just the press. There should be a national dialogue around it, and open hearing sessions,” said Sharshar.
The 127-article law regulates the ownership of media institutions, the operation of state-owned press organisations, penalties for publication offences, the licensing of foreign news agencies and the activities of satellite television channels. These are issues to be decided by consensus not in secret,” said Sharshar.
“The Internet represents the future of the media, in Egypt and the rest of the world. Regulating online media activity should be the subject of careful discussion in which online operators and representatives of media organisations take part.”
MP Tamer Abdel-Kader, a member of the Media Committee, says the new media and press regulation law will make the HCMR responsible for licensing online operations.
He stresses the new legislation is a departure from the institutional regulation of the press and media law passed in 2016.
“Though initially conceived as a single piece of legislation the laws were separated in order to conform to the 2014 constitution which stipulates that an independent law be issued creating three regulatory bodies to cover the media and press.”
“The new media and press regulation law focuses on the internal conditions of state-owned press organisations like retirement age and promotion conditions, the licensing of foreign news agencies and satellite television channels.”
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly