Egypt's journalist syndicate resists crackdown

Egypt's journalist syndicate resists crackdown
Comment: The legal standing of journalism in Egypt has been unclear under the rule of Abdelfattah al-Sisi, but a recent proposal may be a step towards self-regulation, writes Mohamed El-Meshad.
5 min read
24 Aug, 2015
Egypt's Syndicate of Journalists proposed a draft press law [Getty]

Last week, journalists' circles in Egypt were buzzing with news photojournalist Ahmed Ramadan had been arrested after a former colleague alleged he was a member of the Muslim Brothehood.

Ramadan and his competitor were both covering an event at the Police Academy when the allegation and arrest were made.

The Journalists' Syndicate moved swiftly to Ramadan's defence. Ramadan was apprehended and charged while performing his job based solely on the allegations of one fellow journalist, meaning that the onus is now on him to prove he is not a member of the outlawed group. His entire future is in jeopardy.

This incident, and many others, indicate a need for swift and decisive reforms within Egypt's media institutions and in deciding a clear-cut delineation of journalists' professional and personal lives.

Are journalists guarantors of national security, police informants or sources of information?

     Are journalists guarantors of national security, police informants or sources of information?

In light of the state's prioritisation of security and counterterrorism concerns, the definition of the relationship between journalism and the state - not least the security apparatus - is also of paramount importance.

A proposed law set forth this week by the Syndicate of Journalists hopes to tackle some of the legal ambiguities and judicial loopholes that have led to the recent imprisonment and detainment of journalists.

Consitutional background

Articles 70 and 71 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution guarantee freedom of the press and the prohibition of censorship. At the same time, Article 211 stipulates the formation of The Supreme Council for the Regulation of Media, which would act as an independent regulatory committee (similar to the FCC in the USA).

Since the constitution was written, there have not been any actual steps made towards the formation of such a council. Neither has legislation been enacted to protect freedom of the press in any form of codified manner.

The 2014 constitution's attitude towards the press and broadcast media was meant to encourage more self-regulation and less state intervention.

While the jury is still out on whether the state has any intentions of being less interventionist, this latest move by the Syndicate is at least a show of intent that the establishment itself is looking to take up its end of the bargain - proposing more than 200 articles with many stipulations detailing press freedoms, combating media monopolies and provide concrete steps towards the creation of the Supreme Council for the Regulation of Media, as well as a similar non-governmental body to regulate the press.

Significantly, the Syndicate also proposed a law to annul "anti-terrorism" provisions made in a July presidential decree, including punitive measures such as hefty fines and jail-time for journalists that publish information concerning terrorism or counterterrorism activities without resorting to official government information.

The anti-terrorism law, ratified this week, essentially prohibits journalists from independently reporting or publishing on any "terrorist acts", based on independently verified information.

In other words, in matters concerning "national security", journalists are officially expected to act on behalf of the state, at best, as conduits of state information, at worst as mere propaganda pushers.

Despite constant reminders that Egypt has been facing substantial terrorist threats to this day, the Syndicate's decision to reject propagandism and propose new ideas is an audible declaration that the press should be left to perform its "fourth-estate" functions in its own in ways.

It attempts to crystallise a more straightforward legal code to which journalists could refer. Instead, journalists in Egypt have been left in the uncomfortable position of guessing which topics and which forms of coverage would get them into trouble - and which are ok.

Moreover, some media companies had been expanding in a swift and unregulated manner, allowing for the control of several major print and broadcast media organisations to be owned and operated by the same small group of people.

     The draft law would potentially limit the ability of individuals to consolidate mass media in their favour.

The draft law would potentially limit the ability of individuals to consolidate mass media in their favour.

The past few years have, in a sense, been the "Wild West” years for Egyptian media. Times have been unpredictable, exciting, dangerous, formative, influential and king-making. But within four years the media-scape has dizzyingly and drastically shifted from being a seemingly unregulated free-for-all, to looking much more monolithic.

The Hobbesian manner in which the strong, wealthy, and politically connected manage to survive at the expense of others must be tackled in order to avoid a gradual descent into a single-voiced media establishment.

The Syndicate's proposals also call for public-owned media institutions to stop representing specific governments and instead be a truly public broadcasting system that represents society rather than its rulers.

If implemented and executed, such changes could represent a seismic shift in the very concept of media and communications in Egypt.

This is the first time since the establishment of broadcast television in 1960 that media practitioners themselves have got together to propose such a law. It is not without its flaws, but in the presence of political will, the execution of this law could propel media in Egypt into the ranks of the self-regulated, open media establishments elsewhere.

Of course, as long as the state's sole preoccupation is security, and this preoccupation is used an excuse for certain legal transgressions, then the laws will only be as valuable as the paper they're printed on.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focused on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.