The Unified Media Law (UML) proposal has been in the works for well over a year and reached the State Council in late May, where it has remained since, pending final revisions and amendments.
Stakeholders see it as one of the most progressive legislative drafts presented by the government, and believe that it will guarantee journalists and media personnel unprecedented access and freedoms in Egypt.
Despite these steps, the Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies (ECPPS) hosted a talk on Tuesday, where they presented an assessment of some of the articles which they find could be restrictive to journalists and media personnel.
“The UML is the first [legislature] to organise media occupations and group them together. While it boasts many merits, like allowing photography and filming in public spaces, we want to shed light on some of the other articles that are a cause for concern,” Nour Khalil, researcher at ECPPS, said.
The talk saw speakers—such as legal adviser to the Press Syndicate Sayid Abou Zeid, head of the Press Syndicate’s Legislative Committee Karem Mahmoud, and journalist and member of parliament Ahmed El Tantawy—contextualise the UML and elaborate on their contentions.
Revisions, amendments, and the need for change
The draft has been subject to a number of amendments already, and was most recently sent back to the Press Syndicate with eight new amendments that Mahmoud believes get to the core of the bill.
His three biggest concerns, however, were modifications to the articles concerning appointments of the heads of national press councils, the retirement age, and the return of pre-emptive detention for journalists accused of incitement of violence, discrimination, and defamation.
“It is unclear whether the amendments made to these articles were made by the government or by the State Council, but [the syndicate] has not been consulted about these changes,” Mahmoud said.
Mahmoud saw the return of pre-emptive detention as a regressive move, given that it had been partially outlawed under former president Hosni Mubarak, with the remaining contingencies removed under former president Mohammed Morsi.
In their report, ECPPS had outlined a number of articles they believed could use further revision, mostly due to some ambiguity in the terminology concerning matters like “national security” and the identification of the journalist.
“Defining who is or isn’t a journalist is important because given the rise of citizen journalism, there needs to be a body to ascribe journalists as such,” Tantawy said.
ECPPS further noted that direct executive involvement by the president could compromise the independence of state-run institutions.
“There is concern about the presidential appointments of heads of the Supreme Council for the Organisation of the Media, the National Council of the Press, and the National Council of the Media, and whether that could compromise press freedom,” Khalil said.
Delays and consequences
After close to two months at the State Council, and with unclear prospects for a deferral to the parliament, many fail to understand why it is being held up.
“Some drafts pass through the State Council unexpectedly quickly and others take much longer than they need to. This law is a considerably urgent matter, so one would expect it to pass on to the parliament quickly─but it has not,” Tantawy said.
The delay has prompted MP Mostafa Bakry to seek a solution to the alleged expiration of the Supreme Press Council’s tenure, which was set for when an elected legislative body would come into being.
Bakry had proposed to amend the existing media law to allow the president to appoint the new members of the Supreme Press Council, until the UML passes and the council members are elected.
“This is a transitional solution to a transitional solution already in place, it will not go very far and is likely to have a destabilising effect,” Mahmoud said.
The UML is expected to overhaul the existing media law passed in 1996, which was considered by Tantawy, Mahmoud, and Abou Zeid to be incredibly lacking.
“In order to be a member of the Press Syndicate, you need to also be a member of the Socialist Union─that no longer exists. This is in addition to the fact that media personnel like hosts and presenters are not being recognised by the syndicate,” Tantawy said.
Despite the milestones expected to be achieved if the UML passes into law, Egyptian media law and organisation will still not be entirely free, as it features presidential appointments and conditional arrests.
“Law is a reflection of the power relations in the fabric of society. Currently, the UML allows for the maximum amount of freedoms possible in that context,” Tantawy added.