By Al-Monitor –
A new crisis has erupted following a draft law proposed in the parliament this month that would give President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the right to temporarily form a new Supreme Press Council until the issuance of a law regulating the media and press. A draft of the latter was presented by the Supreme Press Council to the Cabinet 10 months ago, but it is still being reviewed by the State Council before being sent to parliament.
The controversial draft law was submitted June 12 by member of parliament Mustafa Bakri, a member of the Committee on Culture and Information and himself a journalist, after collecting the signature of 324 legislators — more than half the 595-member parliament. This proposal would change Article 68 of Law 96 of 1996 on the organization of the press, giving Sisi the authority to form the Supreme Press Council anew and give it full authority for it to be able to make journalistic changes. This comes after the terms of many board chairmen of journalistic institutions ended in January; the terms of the editors of the national newspapers also terminate at the end of this month.
Bakri’s proposed draft was approved by the Committee on Culture and Information on June 14.
The authority to appoint the chairmen of boards for journalistic institutions and editors of state-owned newspapers is now held by the Supreme Press Council. This previously had fallen under the jurisdiction of the Shura Council, but it was dissolved after President Mohammed Morsi was dismissed in early July 2013.
Former interim President Adly Mansour issued a decree around the end of December 2013 to amend some provisions in Law 96 of 1996 on the organization of the press. The decree read, “The Supreme Press Council shall perform its duties during the current transitional period until the Constitution is adopted, the parliament is elected and the necessary legislation regarding the regulation of the press is issued.”
Article 212 of the Constitution stipulates, “The National Press and Media Association is independent, manages state-owned press and media institutions, and undertakes the development of them and their assets, and ensures their development, independence, neutrality and their adherence to sensible professional, administrative and economic standards.” This association is scheduled to be formed according to a “unified” law to regulate the press and the media, which has not yet been issued.
Essam al-Islambouli, a constitutional expert, said that Bakri’s draft law conflicts with Article 224 of the Constitution. Islambouli said that Bakri’s proposal, if passed, would disable the unified “law” to regulate the press and the media — even though the press community, led by the Supreme Press Council, proposed the press and media law following what was set forth in the Constitution.
Islambouli told Al-Monitor that the draft law was a “conspiracy” and an attempt by some members of parliament to change the board chairmen and editors of some of the national newspapers that adopt an approach critical of the current regime; Islambouli said this is contrary to law because it is aimed at targeting certain people, without naming anyone.
But parliament member Tamer Abdel Qader, who is on the Committee on Culture and Information, said, “The draft law gives Sisi the right to form the Supreme Press Council, since the last council’s term has ended, in accordance with resolution No. 76 of 2013.”
Resolution No. 76 of 2013 stipulates that “the Supreme Press Council shall perform its duties during the current transitional period until the Constitution is adopted, the necessary legislation regarding the regulation of the press is issued and the parliament is elected — only once — and until the terms of chairmen of board for national journalistic institutions and editors of newspapers end, and suitable replacements are appointed for no more than two years.”
Qader told Al-Monitor that the draft law came in time to avoid what he called “the current legal impasse” after the Supreme Press Council’s term ended; he indicated that this could trigger what he called “stalemate and chaos” in national newspapers, especially since the “unified” law has not yet been approved by the State Council and will probably be delayed.
He said that in his view, the draft law does not conflict with the Constitution because the Supreme Press Council lost its authority as soon as the parliament convened. Qader did not agree with Islambouli’s suggestion that the law was targeting specific people.
In a session held June 15, the Supreme Press Council rejected Bakri’s draft law, saying it was in conflict with Article 224 of the Constitution, and thus the council will continue to perform its duties until a “unified” law to regulate the press and the media is issued.
In a step that further escalated the situation, the Supreme Press Council ordered editors of national newspapers to continue to do their jobs pending the issuance of press legislation and the formation of the National Press and Media Association. The council also criticized the government’s middling stance on the Cabinet approving the “unified” law a few weeks ago but having referred it to the State Council before presenting it to the parliament for enactment.
Islambouli said he believed the Supreme Press Council’s move was “important” since it blocks some parliamentarians’ attempt to derail the issuance of a “unified” law as a prelude to the National Press and Media Association, which is to appoint the chairmen of national newspapers.
Qader objected to the council’s move, describing it as “illegal,” saying that the decision “was taken by a party that does not have the authority to take it and in favor of undeserving people.” He added that the parliament is due to vote on the draft law by the end of June, since it is currently preoccupied with discussing the budget.
Salah Eissa, the secretary-general of the Supreme Press Council, told Al-Monitor, “We demand that President Sisi, as head of the state and the executive authority, confront this unconstitutional and illegal draft law that the parliament is considering. We demand that he use his constitutional [veto] authority to object to this law, should the parliament approve it.”
Eissa objected to Qader’s statements, saying, “His words indicate that he has not read the Constitution. We will continue with our work until the press and media legislation, which the State Council is currently reviewing, is issued,” adding, “We will not escalate things further, because this is a matter of dispute over an unconstitutional draft law.”
Islambouli said he believes that if the draft law proposed by the members of parliament is passed and Article 68 of Law 96 of 1996 is changed, the Supreme Press Council would challenge the law before the State Council, which would block the law’s execution should the State Council find that the law contradicts the “unified” law. Islambouli said that to do so, the council would need to wait on the constitutional court’s decision on the draft law’s constitutionality.