I took a look back through my mailbox recently and found an email from a colleague on May 17, 2016 titled: “ALERT: Proposed press and media law would kill Mada,” and realized we have been debating what Egypt’s new media law might mean for independent media organizations like ours for more than two years.
On Sunday, October 21, Mada Masr’s legal representative went to Egypt’s Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) to clarify whether or not we are expected to submit papers for registration under the new media law. But confusion still abounds over whether or not existing websites must register within the next two weeks, and of what, exactly, this process of payment and registration consists. Uncertainty has surrounded the law since its inception.
In December 2016, the government submitted a new media bill to Parliament detailing the establishing of the SMRC, and two other oversight bodies—the National Press Authority (NPA) and the National Broadcasting Authority (NBA). At the time, Parliament recommended splitting the bill into two, in order to enable the regulatory bodies to be established quickly and to allow more time for consultation (officially, at least) with media professionals. The second part of this bill never passed into law as it had been expected to do, and in June 2018, an entirely new media bill was presented in Parliament, quickly endorsed, ratified by the president, and published in the Official Gazette on September 1, 2018. This new law replaces all previous legislation, effectively disbanding the regulatory bodies formed in 2016 and giving the newly formed SMRC oversight over all state-owned and privately owned media outlets and broadcasters.
Under the new law, individuals or groups wishing to establish a website with any media or broadcasting content in Egypt, including media sites existing before the new law was ratified, must first seek permission and a license from the SMRC in order to publish.
The fee for registering e-newspapers listed in the law is LE100,000 (US$5,600), but the details concerning the fee are not yet entirely clear. When Mada Masr’s lawyer went to the SMRC to enquire about registering, he was informed that LE50,000 should be paid immediately as a registration fee (non-refundable, and separate from the total fee specified in the law). The media law stipulates also that half of the total listed amount should also be deposited in a bank account recognized by the Central Bank of Egypt for a year before the website or company is created, as a guarantee. For print newspapers and broadcasters the total fees vary, from LE6 million for a daily newspaper, to LE1 million for a monthly publication or regional daily newspaper (this doesn’t apply to public bodies).
The contentious law has been making its way through Egypt’s Parliament since 2016; the final bill, consisting of three new draft laws, was agreed to by a majority of parliamentarians in July, and was ratified by the president on September 1. Superficially, the law seems to be based around the safeguarding of journalists, and a desire to protect the public from “false information,” but the context in which it is to be enacted, the trajectory of its passage, and its ambiguous phrasing reveal the authorities’ ambition to control Egyptian media, not merely to regulate it.
As with other legislation curbing personal and organizational freedoms in Egypt over the last five years, like the NGO and anti-protest laws, the president, pro-regime figures and government bodies will have the ability to interpret and enforce this law arbitrarily and selectively, in order to serve their state-led crackdown on dissenting voices.
The new law hands sweeping powers to the SMRC, which is comprised of nine figures, most of whom are presidentially appointed, whether directly or indirectly. Whereas previously Egypt’s prosecutor general had the power to order the censorship of print publications, broadcasts or online material through the courts, it appears that the newly reconstituted SMRC will now have the power to restrict and censor information pretty much at will.
Even the provisions detailing the rights and duties of journalists—and their guarantee to a fair trial—will only apply to those who are registered with the Journalists Syndicate, and who are recognized by the SMRC. Meaning that many of those who already work in independent media companies, particularly online media, will not be permitted to register with the Syndicate unless they fall under the umbrella of more formal, state-recognized media outlets.
This is a detail that is particularly worrying for organizations like Mada Masr, as, in order to register within the allocated timeframe (two weeks from Monday, October 21), even with the sum of money required, independent organizations would likely have to change the makeup of their staff writers and editors to include at least 70% traditional journalists with a background in print or formal media—those who are already registered with the Syndicate.
In addition to the new licensing fees, the new law also empowers the SMRC to consider how to implement further taxes on websites and social media accounts—and it is not clear if this is just for media sites. While one might understand the opportunism of the Egyptian government in a time of austerity to attempt to capitalize on a sphere that hasn’t previously been taxed, this will likely be hard to implement across the board. Although again, the real purpose of the law may be to provide a legal basis for prosecuting those whom the government wants to silence or restrict, as with the NGO and protest laws before it.
Article 6 of the new law also grants the SMRC the power to withhold a license from or to block any media website or broadcaster, but it is Article 19 that has caused the most controversy: “Any personal website, personal blog or personal profile with 5,000 or more followers” shall be liable to be treated as a media site, effectively giving the SMRC carte blanche to block or suspend any personal website or social media page it perceives to be “publishing or disseminating false news, inciting violation of the law, violence or hatred, discriminating between citizens, calling for racism, slandering individuals, or abusing the divine religions or religious beliefs.”
While hundreds of websites have already been blocked over the last few years in Egypt (including Mada Masr)—some based on “terrorism”-related accusations or for their assumed affiliations with individuals, groups and countries the authorities deem suspicious—the legal grounds for doing so have not always been clear. The loosely defined “dissent from social norms” under the new media law has widened the gateposts of legalese within which the authorities will be able to block or suspend websites and to arrest journalists and media personnel. Article 4 of the new law prohibits media and press from “publishing or broadcasting anything contradicting the Constitution, calling for the violation of the law, or violating the code of professional honor, public order, public morality, or promoting discrimination, violence, racism or hatred.”
Egyptian authorities have a deep understanding of the power of spaces that hold the potential for dissent, particularly in the wake of mass protests in 2011 and 2013, and the new media law must be read within this context. The anti-protest law introduced in 2013 ensured a legal basis for cracking down on peaceful assembly. While many countries have laws mandating official registration for public protests, in Egypt the authorities have combined these with an antiquated assembly law to empower themselves to charge anyone in the vicinity of an ‘illegal protest’ with any crime committed by those nearby. This clause has enabled the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of opposition figures for things like: the possession of weapons, attempted murder, disruption of public order and attempts to undermine the Constitution (one of the government’s favorite charges against Muslim Brotherhood affiliates).
Even if the pretext of the new law is to protect media professionals, we have reason to fear that it is being enacted by officials and systems with dated conceptions of societal, religious and cultural norms that are not shared by the whole of society.
The restriction of online spaces through legal processes that are subject to the whims of a regime that fears dissent will be a huge setback for Egyptian civil society. Because of Article 19, the new law won’t just impact online media sites like Mada Masr, but also many of the individual webpages, blogs and websites set up by citizen journalists over the last few years to fill the gap where state-influenced media has largely reported the government’s official line. Facebook pages like Sinai News 24 (which began in 2013) and Khawater Sinawy (Thoughts of a Sinai Resident) both rely on eyewitness accounts and networks of local volunteer reporters in Sinai to convey information about the government’s ongoing war on terrorism in the peninsula and its impact on local residents.
Under the guise of preventing the spread of ‘false news’ and/or ‘harmful content,’ the new media law is sending a blatant message that it is not okay to oppose the state line. Through Egypt’s new cybercrime law, passed by the President in August this year, the regime is additionally attempting to enlist service providers to collect and share data on users who ‘constitute a threat to national security or the economy’, and a number of public hotlines have been set up to encourage citizens to act as moral police and report those who are spreading information in violation of the law. But the law itself does not make it clear what constitutes ‘fake news’; this is left to the interpretation of the SMRC. Via the SMRC, the Egyptian government will effectively have the power to monitor, censor and criminalize media companies and individuals who are perceived to be spreading information that violates its own conceptions of social, political or religious norms.
For organizations like Mada Masr, this is at once incredibly threatening, and not. We are well used to working in an environment of precarity. As our chief editor, Lina Attalah, has written, at times we even thrive in such a state. Our website, which publishes news and in-depth political, cultural and society features in Arabic and English, has already been blocked for 17 months, and we are currently publishing in Egypt via a mirror site and on social media. Mada Masr is legally registered as a media services company, and we have found many different ways to continue working under restrictive laws, amid a general atmosphere that is suspicious of independently owned media outlets that depart from the party line.
Such precarity is, of course, intentional on the part of the authorities, as the permanent state of uncertainty it provokes is both tiring and disabling—will they go further than blocking us to raiding the office or making arrests? Will we be able to register under the new law or not? Will the Syndicate widen its reach to include media websites?—such uncertainty is effective, to a great extent, in terms of threatening staff morale, but it also pushes us to be more creative, and to keep finding new ways of telling stories.
It is now crunch time. If Mada Masr and other independent news websites are not accepted by the SMRC for registration (which we should know within the next month), we will need to drastically rethink our plan for publishing in Egypt in the future.