New sanctions complete the siege of Egyptian media

Egyptian journalists and media officials expressed deep concern about the sanctions list.
Friday 14/12/2018
Whose voice? An Egyptian man reads a newspaper in the Zamalek district in Cairo. (AP)
Whose voice? An Egyptian man reads a newspaper in the Zamalek district in Cairo. (AP)

Egyptian media would move closer to being under governmental control if the State Council ratifies a sanctions bill drafted by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation designed to end what it called “media chaos.”

Egyptian journalists and media officials expressed deep concern about the sanctions list. Many of them consider it to be a disaster that would destroy freedom of expression and say it subjects media professionals and institutions to State Council inquisition if they stray out of the ordinary, especially in criticising a government official.

The list consists of 30 articles, with sanctions ranging from warnings and fines to the permanent suspension of publication or broadcasting. This runs counter to constitutional provisions and media laws that enshrine the freedom of opinion.

Gamal Shawky, head of the complaints committee at the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, said: “The council is not doing anything different from international practice. Press freedom has international standards and regulations and we are applying them.

“We did not come up with anything worth getting angry about and we aim to put a stop to media chaos. There is a difference between freedom and chaos and we will not shy away from enforcing the bill’s provisions. ”

Under Article 1, those who use or permit the use of clear and explicitly libellous words could be punished. The responsible media party could be fined and warned, the journalist could be referred to an investigation and the media outlet forced to apologise. Infringing programmes or websites could be suspended and the incriminated journalist might be temporarily prohibited from writing or appearing on any media outlet.

Most Egyptian media organs are owned by governmental bodies or businessmen with ties to the authorities, which raises questions about the purpose of imposing sanctions on people indirectly working under a government already capable of restricting them to a specific framework.

However, it seems the biggest goal is to target media professionals who have a clear effect on social media, especially after the Supreme Council for Media Regulation started monitoring social media pages that have at least 5,000 followers.

The new bill would punish those who give a platform to “unqualified personalities” or “show them to the public in a way contrary to the truth” as well as those who allow accusations to spread or who criticise decision makers rather than a decision itself. It would punish conflating opinion for news, committing fraud against the public or violating coverage rules for security and military operations and Arab and African issues.

Observers said with government interference reaching the point of selecting the guests and personalities who appear on air, authorities’ control over media portends the disempowerment of those in charge of press institutions and TV channels and the loss of their ability to formulate editorial lines. They have become executors of the dictates that are given to them and are required to obtain permission before allowing contributors to speak on any issue.

Some journalists say Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent talk about “the media that he wants for Egypt” presages changes in liberty granted to media institutions to discuss issues freely, rendering the media to be, in Sisi’s words, “a voice for Egypt and not the president.”

However, the sanctions list indicates a trend that would place the media under the control of the authorities and have them speak their language and support their policies, making the media the voice of the authorities and not the state.

Egyptian media professionals do not deny that the media have become unprecedentedly chaotic due to the absence of accountability but their retort was that solving this issue must not be in the form of sanctions that would muzzle voices.

Yahya Qallash, former head of the Journalists’ Union, said the sanctions list was a clear nationalisation of the Egyptian media, including the personal social media pages of journalists and media personalities. Such measures carry the message that “survival in the media landscape is for those who flatter lavishly.”

“The government has assassinated whatever remains of the freedom of speech and is threatening to block and ban broadcasting when this punishment was only reserved for crimes that threaten national security,” Qallash said. “How could they do this when the media is already under their control?”

The Media Council has reserved itself the right to prevent the appearance of a journalist, media personality or a guest for a period they specify in case of “standards violation” and may “permanently prevent the broadcasting of a video or audio programme for reasons of national interest or considerations of national security.”

Qallash described this article as a “scandal” because it did not specify a reason for blocking a media platform permanently. It leaves the door open to personal whims and taking revenge on specific broadcasters or excluding them from the media landscape even if they did not commit any wrongdoing. He said he considers the government’s resorting to the pretext of “national interest” or “national security” as reflective of a determination to eliminate any “undesirable” media professional.