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Petition against Supreme Media Regulatory Council bylaws gathers steam

A draft proposal under consideration by the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) that outlines a raft of press violations and penalties that media outlets could face has sparked widespread opposition, with over 550 journalists, writers, politicians and public figures signing a petition calling for its abolition.

The petition criticizes the regulations in no uncertain terms, calling them “the latest episode in a series of moves to censor freedom of opinion and expression and every available avenue for speech.” It calls on the Journalists Syndicate and other relevant bodies to “act in the face of these regulations through all professional and legal means available, and to hold those responsible for drafting the regulations accountable, and to list them as enemies of freedom.”

The SMRC has not released an official draft of the regulations yet, but an article published on its website on November 21 did state that the council’s complaints committee had completed a draft of media violation bylaws. The article, which was later removed, came shortly after the complaints committee’s draft was leaked to the media.

A range of stiff penalties were listed in that leaked draft — including blocking websites, suspending broadcasts and imposing hefty fines — for media organizations that violate a wide set of ambiguous rules.

Ever since the draft was leaked, some members of the SMRC have tried to downplay its significance amid accusations from the rank and file in the Journalists Syndicate and elsewhere that the council is trying to push through the restrictive bylaws without proper discussion.

The undersecretary of the SMRC, Abdel Fattah al-Gabali, criticized the signatories of the petition as “journalists blowing hot air.” He said there was no list of regulations for anyone to oppose in the first place, and described the draft by the complaints committee as merely a collection of the opinions of individual committee members, which hadn’t yet been finalized.

Yet, soon after the draft was leaked, the head of the SMRC, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, defended it, saying on November 25, “those that drafted the list made a good effort, and most of the material is correct.” He added that the council is likely to hold a meeting to discuss it in the upcoming days.

Gabali told Mada Masr earlier this week that the council is currently holding dialogue sessions on the provisions listed in the draft. When asked whether journalists and union representatives were included in the discussions, SMRC secretary general Ahmed Gamal Selim told Mada Masr that the council is not legally obligated to present a draft regulation to the syndicates, but that representatives were allowed to attend community dialogue sessions.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Saad Abdel Hafiz, a member of the Journalists Syndicate board, told Mada Masr that a number of members of the SMRC privately told the Syndicate that the draft regulations had been imposed on the council by an unspecified “government body,” and that the board opposes its adoption.

According to Hafiz, the syndicate is trying to stall the issuance of the bylaws until a new council is formed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Under the new media law that was ratified by Sisi in August — known as the Law on Regulating the Press and Media and the SMRC — a new body of members making up the SMRC will be formed at an unspecified future date.

The law stipulates that the current members of the SMRC will be allowed to continue carrying out their functions, though a presidential decree, until the new council is formed.

Hafiz added that he expects Sisi to issue a decision regarding the restructuring of the SMRC by the end of the week, and for the new council to pass the draft with only minor amendments. The draft would then need to be presented to the State Council — Egypt’s highest judicial body — for review.

For his part, Abdul Mohsen Salama, the head of the Journalists Syndicate, has said he will not weigh in on the issue until he officially receives a version of the draft from the SMRC. Salama has said that he will request this version from the president of the SMRC so that the syndicate can review it, adding that the syndicate board is well within its rights to offer an opinion on this subject.

Hafiz has stated that the syndicate board asked Salama to get official clarification from the SMRC during the last board meeting 10 days ago, in order to determine the fate of the media violation bylaws. He said that, until now, there has been no confirmation that Salama contacted the council regarding the regulations, but that after the increase in the number of petition signatories, “it is certain that the syndicate will be forced to take a firm decision at its next meeting.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Media Professionals Syndicate, Hamdi El-Kenisi, issued a statement 24 hours after the leaked draft was published in which he expressed his rejection of a number of articles, saying they “highly contradict the syndicate and its role as is stipulated in the Media and Press Law.”

The leaked version of the draft bylaws obtained by Mada Masr last month is composed of 30 articles that establish a broad range of vague violations that press organizations could be accused of. Critics say many of them contradict the basic tenets of a free press, including using anonymous sources or “insulting the values and beliefs of society.”

The draft proposal also outlines a variety of harsh penalties that could be imposed on media outlets, including referral to investigation, suspending a broadcast, blocking a website and imposing hefty fines.

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