Egypt: 2018 Law on the Organisation of Press, Media and the Supreme Council of Media

In October 2018, ARTICLE 19 analysed the 2018 Law on the Organisation of Press, Media and the Supreme Council of Media (the Law) of the Arab Republic of Egypt for its compliance with international freedom of expression standards. The Law is part of a collection of new media and cybercrime measures which together serve to legalise the Egyptian government’s existing restrictions on freedom of the media.

ARTICLE 19 finds the Law to be extremely problematic and fails to comply with international human rights standards. In particular, we highlight the following issues:

  • The Law provides sweeping powers to block journalistic and personal websites to a body subordinated to the President. The Supreme Council of Media (Supreme Council), which is largely appointed by the President, is tasked with regulating media. This includes the power to block journalistic web pages, social media accounts, or any personal web page with over 5,000 followers for a wide variety of grounds that are impermissible grounds for restricting freedom of expression. We note that under international standards, measures such as mandatory blocking of access to websites are generally disproportionate interferences with the right of freedom of expression and should only be ordered by a court or independent adjudicatory bodies. The Law provides no such mechanism, allowing the Supreme Council to order blocking of websites at will. Finally, there is no transparency or public list as to the nature of blocking orders or what sites have been blocked; the lack of transparency effectively eliminates the ability of the public to challenge decisions in the courts.
  • The Law fails to distinguish between different forms of regulation for broadcast and print and Internet-based media. We emphasise that self-regulation by the press and Internet-based media should always be preferred over a state-established regulator.
  • The Law creates numerous restrictions on journalists which are fundamentally incompatible with international freedom of expression standards. These include onerous administrative and licensing requirements for individuals to disseminate information in Egypt, especially via the Internet, or even for journalists to attend conferences or interview citizens. It also places strict obligations on journalists to adopt specific regulatory policies, contracts, and to discipline their employees. We emphasise that licensing of journalists is never an acceptable restriction on freedom of expression under international law.
  • The Law introduces broad and ill-defined restrictions on content, censoring content from abroad, and preventing journalists from reporting on matters of public interest like public trials. This includes broad prohibitions on ‘pornography,’ ‘false news,’ and ‘defamation,’ as well as published content that allows for ‘activities hostile to the principles of democracy’ or ‘advocating indecency.’ The Law also allows the Supreme Council to ban publications from abroad on grounds of ‘national security’; and also prohibits journalists from reporting on certain investigations and trials, as doing so would “affect the positions of those involved in the investigation or trial.”

ARTICLE 19 is gravely concerned that the Law will serve to further expand the already harshly restrictive actions taken by the Egyptian government against journalists, bloggers, and dissenting voices. The Law was passed in the context of hundreds of news sites and blogs being blocked in recent months in Egypt, and around a dozen individuals being arrested and charged with publishing false news, among them journalists or prominent government critics.

We believe the problematic aspects of the Law need to be addressed with grave urgency in order to guide press freedom in Egypt to a more positive direction. We urge the government to review the Law and bring all domestic legislation into full compliance with international human rights standards.

Summary of key recommendations

  • Any media related legislation should explicitly reference and safeguard rights to access and publish information, in accordance with international human rights standards;
  • New criminal offenses, introduced in Section VIof the Law should be abolished;
  • Website blocking powers granted to the Supreme Council – namely, Articles 3 and 4 and the blocking power granted in Article 6 para 2– should be stricken entirely;
  • The blocking powers in Article 19, which include vaguely-defined standards such as defamation or ‘false news’, should be stricken;
  • Articles 4, 19, 20 and 21 should be stricken in their entirety for the additional reasons that they introduce overbroad and content-based restrictions on content;
  • Any media related legislation should distinguish between print and Internet-based media on the one hand, and broadcast media on the other, with regulation only specified in relation to broadcast media. The Supreme Council’s role as media regulator should not cover the press and the Internet-based media;
  • To the extent that the Supreme Council is retained, it should be to fully independent and protected against any interference, in particular, by political forces or economic interest. The membership of the Board should ensure, at a minimum, an equal representation of members of the media profession, media owners, and the public. The Law should be amended to guarantee complete independence of the Supreme Council from the President, specifically by removing the ability of the President to appoint several members of the board including the Chair, NTRA representative, and public personality in Article 73;
  • The limitation of the right to establish encrypted platforms in Article 72 should be stricken;
  • Instead of having statutory systems for dealing with content imposed on them, the Egyptian media should be given an opportunity to develop a self-regulatory complaints system that can also provide specific codes of ethics. Specifically, the broad restrictions on journalistic conduct in Article 17 should be stricken, the requirements of media outlets to discipline their employees in Article 18 should also be stricken;
  • The mandatory duty to issue corrections upon any request in Article 22 should be limited. Specifically, the duty to issue corrections should be protected by self-regulatory mechanisms, and only be available to respond to statements which breach a legal right of the person involved.
  • The limitation of the right to establish encrypted platforms in Article 72 should be stricken;
  • Articles 5, 6, 12, 35, 40, 41, 59, 95, and 106should be stricken entirely as licensing requirements for journalists are never justified under international freedom of expression standards.

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