Egypt Bans Media Covering of Sinai, Renaissance Dam, Libya and Coronavirus

Egyptian authorities have sparked controversy on social networking sites over issuance of a ban on addressing four currently circulated topics: Sinai, Renaissance Dam, Coronavirus, and Libya.

Egypt’s highest media regulatory body, an official state arm to control media, has recently decided to ban media covering four sensitive issues, Sinai, Renaissance Dam, Coronavirus, and Libya, currently circulated on the social media and Egyptian local media

The Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) a few days ago issued a statement addressed to local media and users of social networking sites, stressing the need to adhere to only the data released by official authorities in addressing the situation in Sinai, the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD), the coronavirus crisis, and the Libyan crisis.  

The statement stressed that the SCMR will take legal measures against those who violate these rules, by imposing the maximum administrative punishment, and referring them to the Prosecutor General.

The highest media regulatory body in Egypt justified these warnings by stating that “The nation is going through a dangerous turn and grave challenges in this sensitive stage related to the country’s national security, and requires coordination of efforts of all national forces.”

Those banned topics, described by activists as “prohibited” by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, are considered “the most sensitive” issues in the Egyptian scene nowadays, given failure of the Egyptian initiative through which the regime attempted to save Khalifa Haftar after his successive defeats in front of the forces of the legitimate government in Libya, failure of negotiations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that threatens Egyptians with thirsty, failure of the regime in handling the security situation in Sinai, and the government’s failure in facing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Activists emphasized that issuance of such warnings, and threatening to target media outlets as well as users of social networking sites with the maximum administrative punishment in the SCMR statement, is crazy and shows how the regime is nervous about addressing these specific topics, and confirms that Egypt has become in a real danger and that Sisi wants to hide the truth from Egyptian people.

State Control over Information

On June 10 and 11, 2018, the House of Representatives shocked observers by issuing and voting on three new media laws meant to entirely overhaul the previous legal scheme.

The Law Regulating the Press, Media, and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR); the National Press Authority Law; and the National Media Authority Law were approved by the House and the State Council for constitutionality.

The laws, approved as a result of a hasty, opaque process that surprised even some parliamentarians, have earned the criticism of practitioners in the field. The National Press Authority and National Media Authority Laws continue a regulatory scheme in which the state maintains a heavy hand.

They have been criticized for, among other issues, setting forth limited membership for journalists or media professionals in the regulatory bodies. At least 781 journalists have signed a statement rejecting the Law Regulating the Press, Media, and the SCMR in light of its provisions restricting content and subjecting media and the press to extensive government oversight and control.

The law Regulating the Press, Media, and the SCMR establishes prohibitions on content with vague language included in other legislation that has been used to silence alternative portrayals of events, opinions challenging the predominant state narrative, and voices of marginalized individuals.

The law prevents press entities, media outlets, or websites from publishing or broadcasting anything that violates the Egyptian Constitution, professional ethics, and public order or morals; calls for breaking the law; or incites discrimination, violence, racism, hatred, or extremism.

The law also empowers the SCMR to prevent the transmission or entry of publications, advertisements, or media content from abroad based on national security concerns, and authorizes the SCMR to prevent circulation of content that is sexually explicit, attacks religions or sects to upset public order, or incites discrimination, violence, racism, hatred, or extremism.

Finally, the law prohibits press, media, and websites from publishing or broadcasting false news, empowering the SCMR to suspend or censor entities found in violation, which—in this specific provision—also includes personal websites, blogs, and social media accounts with 5,000 or more subscribers. Through this language, the law expands the definition of a journalist or media personality and builds on global “fake news” hysteria, raising serious questions on free speech protections—and creating yet another mechanism through which individuals peacefully expressing personal opinions can be tried, sentenced, and silenced.

Beyond these constraints, the law entrenches a regulatory scheme that threatens the independence of media outlets, subjecting them to constant oversight and creating logistical hurdles through an extensive permit process.

To apply for a permit in order to issue content, a press outlet must submit information to the SCMR including the owner name and nationality, language and type of content, editorial policy, funding, management structure, name of editor-in-chief, and location of the publisher (or server, if applicable); a review and approval process follows. Similarly, anyone wanting to establish a media outlet or website must ascertain permission from the SCMR before beginning work or advertising a launch.

With the law defining a website as a page that has press, media, or advertising content, there is fear that the law enables the regulation of not only news sites, but also the sites of organizations and businesses. The law also requires that approved media outlets and websites maintain comprehensive records of every program and piece of audible, visual, or electronic content they issue for a period of 12 months, sharing copies with the SCMR.

Finally, journalists and media personalities are prohibited from collecting donations for their work from any local or foreign source, both directly and indirectly—raising concerns about the ability of smaller media initiatives or freelancers, who often rely on crowdfunding or donation campaigns to continue producing independent content.

The law does not stop at creating an expansive regulatory regime; rather, it authorizes the SCMR to determine administrative punishments for violations of the law as appropriate, choosing from a selection that includes financial penalties, removal or censorship of content, and suspension of activities.

The law also sets forth a number of punishments. Failing to get the necessary permissions for a press publication, media outlet, or website, for example, can be punished with a fine of 1 million to 3 million Egyptian pounds (LE), while outlets that conduct activities other than what they sought permission for can be punished with an LE1 million to LE2 million fine.

Although the law prohibits pretrial detention in cases in which a publication or a broadcasting-related crime has been committed, the exception is lifted if a case involves incitement to violence, discrimination between citizens, or libel and slander.

Writing into law a regulatory scheme that uses vague language to restrict content in traditional media outlets as well as personal blogs and social media places heavy burdens on news outlets and possibly non-news websites seeking to function legally in the country.

It also hands over significant discretion to government-aligned regulators on the approval, censorship, and punishments facing outlets and publications. Moreover, articles in the law Regulating the Press, Media, and the SCMR and its accompanying draft National Press Authority and National Media Authority Laws violate the clearly established protections for freedom of speech, expression, and the press in the Egyptian Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Egypt’s media laws are yet another indication that the country’s legislature continues to ignore domestic and international legal obligations in an environment in which the state of emergency and the “war against terror” trump all rights concerns and provide excuses for broad language and vague interpretation.

Following an already long line of problematic laws such as the Counter-Terrorism Law and the Cybercrime Law, the media laws equip Egyptian authorities with a set of tools that contributes to closing independent media space, dwindling the number of citizen journalists once empowered by the powers and access of their mobile phones, and frightening everyday citizens who once considered their social media accounts a safe space to blog, reflect, and share thoughts, fears, and dreams.