While journalists and media personnel are wishing to amend the recently-approved media and press laws, as they believe their implementation hinders their work, a new penalty list came onto the scene to make matters worse for the profession.
The Supreme Media Council (SMC), headed by Makram Ahmed, issued last week a nine-page penalty list including 29 articles, approved by parliament, specifying a penalty for every violation to regulate all forms of media as well as social media accounts for people with more than 5,000 followers. It also applies to press institutions, national newspapers, private media institutions, public media institutions, private media outlets, public media outlets, websites, and newspapers.
The list stirred great controversy among press and media communities, with several parties expressing rejection toward some of its articles and called for a unified position by the press community to appeal it.
The list covers all media violations starting from rumours, disrespecting other’s opinions, defamations, disgracing someone’s honour, libel and slander, inciting violence or hatred, invasion of privacy, or violating the code of children, women and people with special needs, and was recently approved by the council.
Penalties range from warnings to media publications and fines and penalties of EGP 250,000 without a court order. Other sanctions include banning and blocking websites and social media accounts with over 5,000 followers if they are deemed a threat to national security. Media outlets that continue to publish “offensive material” will be fined up to EGP 5m.
First, commenting on whether the council has a right to release a penalty list or not, media professor Yasser Abdel Aziz agreed that the council has to issue a penalty list to control inappropriate media practices, as it is an independent national authority responsible and its main task is to control the performance of the Egyptian media, protect the public interest from harmful practices, maintain the right of the public to receive quality information, and meet established standards.
However, the list also included some vague phrases which are open to several interpretations and open up a territory for divisions, Abdel Aziz said, citing examples of such phrases including “harming the feelings of the public,” or “undermining the cohesion of the Egyptian people.” He also added that these phrases violate a journalist’s right of freedom of expression and to criticise, suggesting that the council should remove them from the new list, reviews and re-issues it again but without the disputed articles, which may undermine freedom of expression and the viability of the profession.
Abdel Aziz further explained that the list was met with substantial rejection due to the inclusion of clauses contrary to constitutional articles, professional rules, and threats of further restrictions on media practices and right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The media expert said that council can punish any journalist for ‘unaccepted’ content on social media, in accordance to the list, and this was contrary to constitutional Article 211 which determines the responsibilities of the SMC as to “organise the audio, visual, print, and digital media,” and did not mention that the council could have the right to control personal accounts on social media platforms.
“The SMC grants itself the right to impose sanctions on the media in violation of the code of professional honour, which is not part of its duties,” he said.
Moreover, the list also violates Article 77 of the Constitution by giving itself the right to punish journalists and media personnel, while the article stipulates that syndicates are the only entities with the right to punish them if they commit any professional violation, he said, adding that the council also gives itself the right to impose the penalty of ‘blocking’ any media or press outlet’s website, which is an act prohibited by Article 71 of the Constitution.
For the past two years, around 450 websites have been blocked in Egypt, where journalists aspire the Media Council would find a possible solution for this issue.
Abdel Aziz concluded that the list in general “includes a number of violations of a legal and professional nature, which violate the scope of freedom of opinion and expression, and make the practice of media work risky, and warns of serious consequences”.
Only few days after its release, the Media Council took several actions toward several newspapers, including the British Broadcasting Corporation, better known as the BBC.
In its first implementation of the penalty code, the Media Council ordered the blocking of the privately-owned newspaper, Al-Mashhad, for six months and fined it EGP 50,000 to be paid within two weeks for publishing inappropriate content.
Moreover, the complaints committee of the SMC, headed by Gamal Shawky, recommended taking legal action against the BBC and fining it EGP 250,000 or its equivalent in foreign currency, for reportedly insulting Egyptian people.
One day following the recommendation, Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS) sent a letter to the BBC accusing it of “promoting the lies of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group” in an “inflammatory article” published on the BBC’s Arabic-language website. The SIS also has summoned the head of the BBC’s Cairo office over the article, which is titled ‘#Rest_assured_you_are_not_alone campaign renews calls for protests against Sisi’.
The Editor-in-Chief of the privately-owned Shorouk newspaper, Emad El-Din Hussien, commented on the list saying that, “I fully understand that the state aims to fight the rumours and lies that permeate the media, especially on social media websites, but the problem is simply that the state, while implementing this, would seriously kill the profession.”
Hussien said that the penalties decided by the council are very huge, as the ranges would fine journalists in different cases from EGP 50,000, to 500,000 and in other cases could reach EGP 5,000,000, and it also granted itself the right to prevent broadcasting, publication or confiscating any material, as well as giving the head of the council the right to sign or cancel the penalty alone.
“Entire Egyptian newspapers, satellite channels and websites suffer from severe economic crises, and so in case any one of them is fined with EGP 250,000 or 500,000, this would lead to their closure,” he said.
In the same context, the National Council for Human Rights stressed that the list was drafted contrary to the provisions of the constitution and the law, and that the judiciary is the only entity permitted to issue sentences of conviction and punishment, noting that the provisions of this list included restrictions on the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression and professional work.
A member of the Press Syndicate board, Mohamed Saeed Abdel Hafez, previously said that some of syndicate’s board members agreed to submit a request to the syndicate’s council to refer the head of SMC for investigation due to violating the law and the constitution through blocking Al-Mashhad newspaper.
Members of the Press Syndicate board have been discussing the matter with lawyers, according to Abdel-Hafiz, and have filed an appeal with the State Council against the new list.
Plus, the newly-elected Head of the Press Syndicate, Diaa Rashwan, said that the syndicate is yet to provide its final opinion regarding the new sanctions list issued by the council, as the syndicate has the right to comment according to the constitution.
He also said in an official statement that the syndicate is scheduled to discuss all the articles in the list, and will review previous reports prepared in January by the syndicate’s council regarding the list, which was referred to the SMC, noting that the syndicate has the right to provide its opinion in accordance to Constitutional articles 70, 71, 72, 77, and article 76 of the Syndicates Law.
Moreover, the Media Syndicate submitted a number of comments to the council, but the council did not consider most of them, Seham Salah, deputy of the syndicate, said.
Noteworthy, the syndicate submitted comments on five articles to the council, which are related to the accountability of media professionals, but they were deleted and replaced with Article 27, which infringes upon the right of the Media Syndicate to hold accountable excesses issued by media personnel.
“Article 27 violates the law of the Media Syndicate, which recognises the right to hold any media accountable in case of infringement,” Salah said, adding, “There are a number of articles that stipulate the suspension or cancellation of a licence for certain media personnel, as well as the suspension of programmes, which is totally unacceptable under any circumstances because it is contrary to the freedom of opinion and expression.”
Meanwhile, as criticism was ongoing, the Head of the SMC, Makram Ahmed, rejected the reactions of journalists and media personnel over the list, depicting them as “distortion attempts.”
The list was approved by the State Council and was discussed while taking the journalists’ comments and media personnel into consideration, he said, adding that the list did not add anything new as it came to complete the recently approved Media and Press Laws.