Paper on “restrictions on media freedom” submitted by AFTE to the national dialogue

Date : Tuesday, 26 September, 2023


The media scene in Egypt has been controlled by the government for decades, whether through legislation and laws that have been introduced or amended, or public policies toward media or through the direct ownership of many media outlets by security agencies. The media market in Egypt has witnessed an unprecedented boom during the last years of the rule of late President Hosni Mubarak and the few years that followed the January 2011 revolution. During that period, a number of businessmen pumped large sums of money into the media field, whether to establish new satellite channels, newspapers, or news websites, which contributed to the existence of competitiveness in the field, especially in light of the diversity of media ownership.

The media landscape has changed since 2014, as after the openness the media witnessed, the Egyptian authorities regained control of the media scene through several tools and methods, including policy and legislative ones.


Control of media

In 2017, the authorities launched a large-scale campaign to block a number of independent and opposition news websites. The number of blocked websites has since reached at least 558, according to the Association for Free Thought and Expression (AFTE). In 2018, the Egyptian authorities tightened their grip – directly and indirectly – on the media landscape through a package of laws, including the Press and Media Regulation Law No. 180 of 2018, the laws of both the National Press Authority and the National Media Authority, and the Information Technology Crimes Law, which the authorities have increasingly used against journalists over the recent period, resulting in the arrest and detention of a number of them. The authorities still refuse to pass a law on access to information or regularize the status of independent news websites.

These practices led to the depletion and impoverishment of the Egyptian media market, both in terms of audience and journalists, as citizens lost confidence in the media, its credibility and diversity. The authorities imposed censorship on and restricted journalistic work and applied custodial penalties in publishing crimes, thus creating a state of self-censorship and making the media market repellent to opposition and independent journalists as well as to potential investments. In 2021, Egypt ranked 168th in the Reporters Without Borders index of press freedom out of 180 countries included in the index, declining eight places compared to the situation in 2017 when it ranked 160th in the same list.

While the Egyptian government is moving to exit from some economic sectors and allow foreign and local investors to enter the Egyptian economy, it has become important and feasible for the government to adopt similar policies toward the local media market. The government recently presented a draft of what it described as a “state ownership document”, announcing its plan to exit from some economic activities in the country and expand the private sector’s role in the gross domestic product.


Viewership research

Viewership research is one of the basic tools in the advertising market, as it enables advertisers to measure the impact of their products in the market, which greatly affects their economic decision to inject more money into a specific product or not. It also affects the advertisers’ decision to choose the most viewed TV stations, which in turn allows their products to reach out to a wider segment of the audience. The Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) banned this tool in mid-2017, after the suspension of Ipsos, a leading French market research company that had operated in Egypt since 2006 and provided confidential consulting services to advertisers.

Since 2016, viewership research companies have been required to obtain licenses from the SCMR to operate. The media market in Egypt has since had a vacuum in viewership research. Although the SCMR agreed in 2017 to establish a national viewership research company, and an ad hoc committee set a number of conditions and criteria for the private companies operating in the Egyptian market in 2019, these flawed procedures have not been put into effect. Therefore, the media market has remained without viewership research companies.

In fact, the technological development has created a direct relationship between service providers and recipients without need for state mediation and its production tools. Therefore, imposing conditions on this sector of the market for national security reasons has become useless and ineffective, as it affects potential investments in this sector. Advanced technology enables advertisers to measure the reactions of recipients through various social media tools, or through the use of “People Meter”, a piece of electronic equipment used in people’s homes to measure the number of viewers of particular television programs as well as the period of viewing. Although the authorities banned the entry of the device into the country for national security reasons, it may be smuggled. Advertisers can also use the “Media Sell” software, which can be installed on tablets or smartphones to monitor viewership rates from anywhere outside the home.

Hence, the SCMR needs to fill the vacuum in the media market by allowing private companies to re-enter this sector. The SCMR’s role should be limited to monitoring the extent to which private companies adhere to the methodological standards set for their work. This makes the powers granted to the SCMR by law subject to review, especially Item 13 of Article 70 of Law No. 180 of 2018, which gives broad powers to the SCMR with regard to licensing the work of viewership research companies in Egypt.


Blocking as an expanded punishment

In 2017, the Egyptian authorities began to follow a policy of blocking websites within the framework of controlling the spaces opened by the internet, which the authorities tried repeatedly to impose comprehensive censorship on. Since then, AFTE has documented several patterns and effects of blocking. At least 558  websites have so far been blocked, including more than 120 news websites. This cannot only be seen as an attack on press freedom or on the right of citizens to access information or browse the internet freely, as the blocking has a significant economic dimension, especially in light of blocking emerging news websites.

In addition to the blocking’s impact on the quantity and form of Arabic online content, which is scarce compared to the content available in other languages, it also affected the profit and work system of many press institutions that shifted to the internet to avoid the economic cost of print newspapers, especially after the successive local and global economic crises. The use of blocking as an expanded punishment has weakened the chances of success and continuity of these websites, especially as they depend on the number of views and their ability to reach out to a wider audience as a source of funding or enter into partnerships with investors and other missed opportunities. It is generally difficult for investors to inject money into an unstable market, where sovereign blocking decisions may disrupt the websites in which they invest.

In this context, the SCMR played a pivotal role in the blocking process, as it issued decisions to block websites and press material in accordance with the powers it obtains from the Press and Media Regulation Law. The identity of the body standing behind the blocking of the vast majority of blocked websites was not officially revealed. Article 7 of the Information Technology Crimes Law allows the Public Prosecution/the competent investigation authority to block websites that may pose a threat to national security. It also allows the investigation and control bodies (the police) the authority to approve the blocking in case of urgency – without specifying the cases of urgency – by informing the National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA) and referring the blocking order to a competent court within 24 hours.

Therefore, multiple bodies are responsible for the blocking, which has diverse patterns, in light of deliberate concealment of the bodies responsible for most of these decisions. This policy creates a climate that repels investments, disrupts opportunities for the growth and development of press and media projects, and harms practitioners of the profession, who may be forced to lose their jobs or be laid off, especially after a number of these websites withdrew from the market or cut members of staff. It also creates an unsafe work environment in which the SCMR imposes expanded penalties, including blocking on media outlets.


Regularizing the statuses of websites

The Press and Media Regulation Law No. 180 of 2018 allows the SCMR to issue licenses for media outlets and websites and regularize their statuses. The SCMR has started receiving license applications from websites since the law was issued. However, the delay in issuing the executive regulations of the law and the licensing regulations disrupted this process. The regulations of the law was issued by Resolution No. 26 of 2020 almost a year and a half after the law was issued. Article 2 of the law, which authorizes the cabinet to issue the regulations, stipulates that the regulations should be issued within a maximum period of three months. During the period between the issuance of the law and its regulations, websites faced several difficulties, and there was confusion in interpreting the law in terms of its scope of application, requirements, and the penalties contained therein.

Since then, the SCMR has deliberately slowed down the process of issuing licenses for some independent, partisan, and opposition news websites, exposing some of them to legal prosecution. The Cairo Appeals Prosecution charged the editor-in-chief of Mada Masr website, Lina Atallah, with running an unlicensed website in September 2022, although the website had submitted its license application to the SCMR in 2018. In this context, Masr Al-Arabia website was blocked more than a year and a half after it submitted its license application, which the SCMR did not respond to.

In general, the process of regularizing the status of news websites was characterized by randomness and selectivity with regard to the SCMR’s interaction with the license applications submitted to it, despite meeting all the licensing conditions. It can be said that the license applications submitted by websites that provide opposition content or carry criticism of existing government policies are ignored, leaving their legal status uncertain so that they remain threatened with security prosecutions for not obtaining a license to operate. This comes despite the fact that the SCMR issued licenses for most national news websites and a number of private websites.

The SCMR should expedite the process of examining license applications submitted by news websites, especially those submitted in 2018 and have not received any response so far. The SCMR’s slowness in regularizing the statuses of some websites exposes them to security prosecution, especially after security forces raided the offices of some of these websites.


In one hand… On media ownership

The broadcasting sector in Egypt is mainly controlled by state-owned companies and institutions, security agencies (the National Media Authority and Nile Radio Company), and the United Media Services (UMS). There are still a few media outlets owned by businessmen, most of whom are supporters of the current government.

The media sector has been severely affected by these new trends, which impoverished the media content and directed it in specific tracks that convey a single voice and narrative. The UMS owns most of the private television networks and an advertising agency, and controls the drama production as well.

The Egyptian authorities should stop monopolizing the media scene and open the media, advertising and entertainment markets to the private sector to ensure a diversity of voices and topics that enrich the media, restore the citizens’ trust, and improve the situation of media freedom in Egypt.


Detention of journalists

The Egyptian authorities targeted journalists for carrying out their work. Dozens of journalists were detained on publishing-related charges over the past years. At least 10 journalists are still held in pretrial detention.

The arrests of journalists and the ban on coverage increased significantly during the Covid-19 crisis. These obstacles imposed on the journalistic work affect those working in the media field and increase the difficulties they face. The Egyptian legislative environment is full of laws that allow the prosecution of journalists on charges of spreading false news.


Conclusion and recommendations

  • All journalists held in pretrial detention should be released.
  • The Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law No. 175 of 2018 should be repealed, as cybercrimes could be confronted by introducing some amendments to the Penal Code.
  • Article 73 of the Press and Media Regulation Law No. 180 of 2018 should be amended in a way that ensures the formation of the SCMR away from the authority of the President of the Republic, provided that it is formed by the House of Representatives.
  • Article 6 of the Press and Media Regulation Law, which stipulates the need to obtain a license from the SCMR to establish websites, should be repealed, provided that websites are established upon notification.
  • The arbitrary security and executive practices against independent news websites should be stopped and the blocked websites should be unblocked.
  • The censorship of and security interference in the work of media outlets and newspapers should be stopped.

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