The need to develop a voluntary code of conduct for the press in Egypt has never been so pressing as it is today. This code must highlight the media’s commitment to the public interest and establish a means of avoiding the interference of the state in press-related disputes.
In Egypt, there are no widely-adhered to guidelines entrenching the basic journalistic codes of ethics. Although the Journalists’ Syndicate’s code has been in existence for decades, penal code laws governing the media have been most prevalent in settling disputes. Even though this takes place everywhere in the world, in Egypt, some of these laws could have journalists jailed for “publishing offences and for committing vague crimes like spreading rumors or tarnishing Egypt’s image.
Indeed over the past couple of years, there have been several high profile court cases raised against editors in chief of newspapers for exactly such crimes.
Other restrictive rules include licensing obstacles for instance, where potential newspapers find themselves facing lists of crippling conditions to secure local printing permits, forcing them to resort to off-shore licenses.
This, in turn, means that journalists employed in these media institutions have no right to join the syndicate (which stipulates working for a locally licensed media outlet) that – theoretically – protects them.
So the situation is currently one of two extremes: either state coersion or absolute chaos, where tabloid journalists, with impunity, commit libel and defamation, and make unsourced and unverified allegations and infringements on privacy.
Part of the reason for the rise of this brand of “yellow journalism has been the relative opening up of the media to the private sector, the rise in the number of independent titles (including daily national newspapers, where at least five or six of them have seen the light in the past few years.)
In a way the chaos can be construed as a natural reaction to decades of state controlled media, whether it’s printed or broadcast.
Another reason fuelling such malpractices is the limited access to information, and lack of transparency on every level of government. We have no equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act as is the case in most of the developed/democratic world. The phenomenon of a designated official ministerial spokesman has only surfaced in Egypt less than four years ago and is not widely employed by all official bodies. This makes it virtually impossible to obtain facts and sometimes even to simply get a statement from an official source to rebut allegations of corruption or the misappropriation of public funds, for instance, reports on which have been one of the main reasons why journalists are taken to court.
If the state controls access to information, then the press cannot be taken to task for being irresponsible. This monopoly over informations is a major obstacle to activating the media’s role as the fourth estate, as a watchdog monitoring the centers of power and performing its main function to educate an alert citizenry that will make informed decisions in choosing who represents them.
Although the journalists’ code of ethics in Egypt gives the syndicate the responsibility of investigating irregularities committed by individual journalists and in taking certain punitive measures (such as imposing fines on the offending publication, suspension from the syndicate, etc.) the perception, both internally and abroad, is that publishing offenses are mostly dealt with in court. Even though court proceedings rarely reach the point of jailing journalists, with sentences being suspended, the very existence of this as an option is a strong enough deterrent to a completely free press which safeguards the machinations of democracy.
The relentless lobbying of local and international rights groups like the Committee for the Protection of Journalists and Reporters Without borders, has crystallized the belief that the battle for press freedom is being fought in court, where a state intent on muzzling an increasingly virulent and critical media, is at loggerheads with journalists who are only doing their jobs.
The role of the Journalists’ Syndicate in investigating and punishing perhaps genuine complaints, is hardly felt, most probably because the guidelines and due process of implementing them are not publicly or officially acknowledged in a way that they would be if we had a press ombudsman with an internal mandate, or an independent Press Council as in the German model, for example with a clear mandate. This would provide the public with a quick, fair and free method of resolving any complaints they may have in relation to newspapers and periodicals that breach the code in a much more transparent and independent manner.
When it comes to broadcast media, last year the Arab League’s Arab Satellite Broadcasting Charter aimed to outline the Principles for Regulating Satellite Broadcasting Transmission in the Arab World – which though it may seem to make perfect sense (modeled as it is on the US FCC) – raised a storm.
It was criticized for attempting to curtail the media and take back what hard-earned gains it made over the past decade. Some of its critics even went as far as accusing it of attempting to control the minds and thoughts of Arab viewers, mostly on political issues.
(It must be noted that the Arab League is a voluntary body that has a moral authority but no binding power, but it is feared that the charter will inform restrictive laws in the Arab League states.)
Pundits accuse the proposed charter (which was refused by Lebanon and Qatar) of being a tool for leaders of Arab intelligence and security forces to plan and coordinate actions that protected their own regimes as well as the interests of their international allies.
In an article by Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian Journalist and Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, he says, “Couched between clauses that prohibit broadcasting obscenity, pornography and scenes encouraging smoking, the charter calls for ‘Abstaining from broadcasting anything that would contradict with or jeopardize Arab solidarity and [promoting] Pan-Arab cooperation and integration.’
“It also calls for ‘abidance by objectivity, honesty and respect of the dignity and national sovereignty of states and their people, and not to insult their leaders or national and religious symbols,’ criticizing the fact that leaders are somewhat entitled to immunity from the scrutiny of the media.
I recently came to my attention that the architect of this charter, Egyptian member of the ruling National Democratic Party and journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, Hussein Amin, is contemplating plans by the Arab league to modify this charter and formulate an Arab media commission based on the UK model. What this entails (in the fine print) is yet to be revealed.
While I agree that some form of regulation must be drafted to protect ordinary citizens, I do not believe that it would be in the public interest for it to be formulated by government representatives, especially if it’s cooked up by the (technically) non-binding Arab League through state-represented ministers of information.
Within the context of the current political climate in Egypt, in what scholars have referred to as a hybrid democracy or a democracy in transition, it is true that censorship has eased, but it still exists and is more than subliminal.
ny move towards media self-regulation must necessarily spring from media practitioners themselves.
The issue of new media also poses a huge challenge. But while in Egypt there has as far as I know, been minimal moves towards blocking websites, other forms of indirect intimidation still exist and there’s a clear thrust towards discrediting dissenting voices online and labeling cyber-activists as agents of some foreign threat.
The question is, how far can the internet be regulated from within without curtailing the freedom that is relatively absent in such transitional democracies?
One can’t help thinking of Iran’s twitte
r revolution that has unfolded before the world over the past two weeks despite the state’s decision to ban the foreign press and even local press and to interfere with instant communication devices.
To conclude, I will pose the pressing question: Within this context is there a danger that self-regulation will turn into self-censorship?
Rania Al Malky is the Chief editor of Daily News Egypt. She gave this talk at a one-day seminar discussing media self-regulation that was held in Vienna on June19. The seminar was organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).