Yesterday the Egyptian parliament passed the Law Organizing Press and Media Institutions, which fulfills some of the requirements set forth in Articles 211, 212, and 213 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution. These articles mandate legislation establishing a National Media Council and a National Press and Media Association, which are meant to serve as independent entities to manage private and state-owned media outlets. Upon ratification of the constitution, a group of media members and heads of civil society groups began working to fulfill this goal. They presented a Unified Media Law in May 2015 that outlined each of the necessary media bodies while ensuring the rights and freedoms of journalists.
While Egypt’s House of Representatives received iterations of the unified law, the government appears to have decided to split this unified law into as many as four different laws. Each bill is designed to fulfill one specific requirement of the constitution and each is largely devoid of any of the prior sections on the rights of the media. The law passed today was one of these fractured pieces of the original unified law, though it was amended further when it finally made it onto the agenda of the Media Committee of parliament this year. Reports from within the parliament during the editing process show that the executive branch of government was actively following the progress of each draft — so much so that, minutes after voting, members of parliament received mysterious phone calls prompting them to vote again on an article that would have curtailed government control of one of the bodies. At least three members (out of 14) of the Media Committee threatened to resign in protest of the government’s undue influence on the drafting process. This all occurred as amendments proposed by professional organizations like Egypt’s Syndicate of Journalists were reportedly either ignored or quietly deleted to ensure “stability.” Thus, by gutting this law of anything except the specifics of the membership and location of the new media institutions, all decisions about the practice of journalism and media coverage in Egypt were passed on to the new professional bodies being created. These bodies are going to be stacked with government representatives empowered to control a media environment that many feel is already highly policed by the Egyptian state.
Therefore, while the Law Organizing Press and Media Institutions does not materially change the relationship between media members and the state, its attempt to push professional organizations out of future discussions of media rights and ethics is concerning. Up until this point, parliament has been debating a companion law governing the professions of journalism and media that is supposed to address some of these issues. But there is not guarantee that it will continue to be debated now that the constitutional mandate has been fulfilled and the new institutions have been empowered to make many of these rules on their own. Groups like Egypt’s High Media Council have voiced their fear about this possibility and have sent a note to parliament calling for it to pass such a law within 15 days of the creation of the media bodies. Media members do not appear to fully trust the new professional bodies legislated to ostensibly protect them. Even though the law organizing the media institutions would theoretically give the new professional groups the ability to secure the necessary freedoms on their own, the explicit empowerment of state representatives on the leadership boards of those bodies and the state’s blatant interference in the legislative process to ensure their empowerment make this unlikely. The state has already displayed a penchant for pressuring the media to promote government policies, so failing to include any legal provisions that journalists might use to counter state efforts is cause for concern. The confluence of factors seen here could eventually lead to rolling back what few legal privileges journalists in Egypt are afforded and, in doing so, further erode the national government. An independent and critical media is the basis for any strong democracy. Let’s hope Egypt isn’t about to smother what’s left of theirs.