|The draft bill has been the subject of much debate in Egypt’s press [EPA]|
The Egyptian government is in the early stages of preparing a new law on audio-visual media that critics say is aimed at cracking down on dissent.
The proposed legislation, should it pass into law unchanged, will set the standard for other governments in the Arab world seeking to silence opposition voices on televisions and computer screens across the region.
The draft bill, which was leaked to the independent Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm on July 9, requires journalists and broadcasters to avoid damaging “the social peace”, “national unity”, “public order” and “public values”.
Those who contravene such rules, the draft suggests, could face imprisonment for periods ranging from one month to three years, along with suspension or cancellation of broadcasting licenses, the confiscation of equipment, and fines ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,800 – $9,000).
Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, sees the proposed law as a cynical attempt at strangling the burgeoning democracy movement in Egypt.
“Television and the internet have been giving the government a hard time for the past four years,” he said.
“These two media have played a big role in the escalating movement asking for democracy. They are two important parts of the movement, so the government is trying to put more restrictions on them.”
National regulatory agency
The draft also outlines the creation of a National Agency for Regulation of Audio and Visual Broadcast, which will be responsible for policing the code of ethics. The agency will be comprised of representatives of the national security and military intelligence.
The overall head of the agency is to be appointed by the prime minister on the recommendation of the minister of information, a post currently held by Anas Al-Faky.
A blanket ban is to be applied to all discussion in the media of the body’s activities, with breaches of this rule resulting in prison sentences, a move that will raise its status to that of a national security body.
The draft has been the subject of much debate in the press and on television talk shows since it was leaked, and has come in for some heavy criticism from journalists and human rights organisations.
According to Eid, the draft’s use of such elastic terms as “social peace” and “public order” is deliberate, enabling the government to prosecute transgressors with relative ease.
“These are very vague expressions, which are subject to many interpretations. And they want to keep it vague on purpose, so that it can be subject to interpretation afterwards,” he said.
Satellite TV closures
An indication of the Egyptian government’s determination to crack down on wayward broadcasters can been seen in the recent spate of closures of satellite television offices in Cairo.
Among them is the London-based Al-Hewar channel, known for its political talk shows hosting outspoken critics of the Egyptian government.
Also targeted were Saudi-based Al-Baraka, which purports to promote Islamic values, and the Iraq-based Al-Zawraa channel which has lent its support to the insurgency in Iraq.
|There is growing governmental concern about social networking sites [GALLO/GETTY]|
Most recently, the Cairo office of the Iranian channel Al-Alam was raided by police in July.
In April, a supplier of television broadcast services Cairo News Company was effectively closed down amid claims that it had supplied Al Jazeera with the equipment used in its broadcasts of large-scale demonstrations in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla Al-Kobra.
Footage from the demonstrations included images of a large poster of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, being torn down and defaced.
Concerns have also been mounting about the use of social network sites such as Facebook, which was used by some activists to spread word of a general strike on the day of the Mahalla protests.
Equally troubling to the Egyptian government have been internet blogs, such as that of blogger Wael Abbas who has run into trouble for posting video clips of torture at the hands of Egyptian police.
Such high-profile cases are just the tip of the iceberg, and the Egyptian government has been targeting these new media for some time now.
But the sudden increase in closures of satellite operations coincides with an increase in inter-governmental cooperation in the control of media outlets that operate across national boundaries.
In February, Arab ministers of information signed to a non-binding charter on satellite broadcasting, which includes a prohibition on content that damages “social peace, national order, public unity” or discredits “national leaders and religious icons”.
The charter was proposed to the Arab League by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Of the 22 members of the League, only Lebanon and Qatar declined to sign up.
Arab media surprising
The proposed Egyptian legislation is seen by many commentators as the first step in a process of enshrining the pan-Arab charter into national law, with other Arab nations likely to follow Egypt’s example in the coming months and years.
Naila Hamdy, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, says that the political and cultural challenges posed by new media have taken Arab governments by surprise.
“So far, unregulated satellite has brought fuelling of sectarian wars, political dissent and opposing views,” she said.
“With the possibility of thousands more stations and other technologies catching on in a second … I think that those in government responsible for information regulation have realised that they are a decade behind. They are now trying to address this new era.”
However, Hamdy says that the appearance of laws regulating the operations of new media is not necessarily a negative development in itself.
“I believe that the main aim of the draft law is to regulate the media in a new environment and changing landscape. Yes, controlling political opposition and/or dissent may be a by-product, but that does not need a new media law.
“The issue of regulations in the digital area has long been postponed or delayed. To date there are hardly any laws, for example, in the Arab world that address online content. Most of the regulations have been in the telecommunication, technical areas,” she said.
For some observers, the fact that the confidential draft was leaked in the first place is an indication that some elements in the government want either to sabotage the bill or to test reactions from the Egyptian public before pushing ahead.
The minister of information found one vocal supporter in Osama Saraya, the editor of the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram. Saraya said there was no evidence of plans for media censorship, and launched a biting attack on Al-Masry Al-Youm for stirring unnecessary controversy.
Meanwhile, Mansour Hassan, who served as minister of culture and information from 1979 to 1981, has been scathing of Al-Faki’s plans. According to the independent newspaper The Daily News Egypt, Hassan called in during a television talk show to suggest a more liberal solution.
“Having a censorship authority is inappropriate; it should be an evaluation authority that ensures the media is objective and provides accurate information. It should be an independent body that is trusted by the public, like the National Council for Human Rights, for example,” he said.
“The authority should ensure that the media is expressing itself freely but under a few regulations. However, having a censorship body [controlling] the media is absurd,” he added.
As the debate continues, journalists are planning to oppose the draft with demonstrations, and some may take heart from Mubarak’s decision in 1996 to rescind the “repressive” Press Law 93 of 1995 after continued agitation.
Considering the opposition to the draft from journalists and activists, and the potential for infighting within the political elite, it seems possible that should the draft become law it will likely undergo various amendments.
Hamdy for one believes that at least some of the proposed measures will be modified.
“I believe that the draft law will not be passed as is. Egypt is ready for more freedom of expression,” she said.