By Mohamed Selim
During the two past weeks, Egypt was gripped by yet another case of media sciolism. Al Kahera Wal Nas, “Cairo and the People”, a private satellite channel broadcasted from Cairo’s Media Production City (MPC), has been the subject of controversy in a dangerously polarised country. Its programme, The Black Box, presented by a self-proclaimed radicalism expert, Abdel Rehim Ali, has been broadcasting private phone-calls of Egyptian politicians, activists and prominent public figures. His weekly show also witnessed his own analysis and background information of every phone-call supported by further unattributed sources to stamp the snooped-upon individuals with the label of perfidiousness and corruption. Yet, on 18 August, the channel has stopped the programme without justification. This has fed the public with fodder for further hearsay and gossip.
In Egypt, where the society is polarised to the extent that broadcasting such calls would help one team settle their scores with the other, the programme has evidently touched a nerve. Egyptians started discussing the context of the phone-calls, engaging in a spree of gloating at the expense of those spied-upon, while they wilfully ignored the fact that airing private conversations is illegal under Egypt’s legal and international contexts, which the country is signatory to.
Egypt is one of the 48 countries that have adopted the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) on 10 Decemeber 1948, of which Article 12 states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
Egypt’s newly ratified constitution issued after last year’s military takeover, has also enshrined the basic tenants of protection of privacy and the rule of law. Article 57 stipulates:
“The right to privacy may not be violated, shall be protected and may not be infringed upon. [Postal, telegraphic and electronic correspondences, telephone calls, and other means of communication] are inviolable, and their confidentiality is guaranteed. They may not be confiscated, revealed or monitored except by virtue of a reasoned judicial order, for a definite period, and only in the cases defined by law. The state shall protect citizens’ right to use all forms of public means of communications. Interrupting or disconnecting them, or depriving the citizens from using them, arbitrarily, is impermissible. This shall be regulated by law.”
In that regard, the Egyptian penal code of the year 1937 is laying the legal framework for safeguarding the public’s privacy from any infringements. Article 309bis postulates:
“A penalty of detention for a period not exceeding one year shall be inflicted on whoever encroaches upon the inviolability of a citizen’s private life, by committing one of the following acts in other than the cases legally authorized, or without the consent of the victim.
[Among others] Eavesdropping, recording, or transmitting, via any instrument whatever its kind, talks having taken place in a special place, or on the telephone. A public official / civil servant who commits any of the deed defined in this article, based on the authority of Ids position, shall be punished with detention.”
Hence, the broadcasting of personal phone-calls of Egyptian citizens is unequivocally punishable by law, yet, due to the current chaotic situation of the legal and mediascape in the country, the lack of oversight and litigation is to blame. Egypt’s media, whether official, quasi-official or private, are at their lowest point of professionalism since 31 May 1934 (the broadcasting of the first Egyptian Radio Channel). The media have been in disarray ever since the 2011 uprising, where freedom, for many media outlets, meant freedom from all shackles, including the laws, ethics and, above all, professionalism.
Egypt is in dire need of a neutral, nonpartisan, representative and affirmative media oversight body, on the footsteps of the British Office of Communication (Ofcom), where monitoring the media outlets’ ethical and professional is maintained. Such a body is formulated in Article 213 of Egypt’s constitution and mandated with far-fetched prerogatives to rectify the country’s muddled mediascape. It specifies that:
“The National Media Organization (NMO) is an independent organization that shall manage and develop state-owned visual, audio and digital media outlets and their assets, as well as ensure their development, independence, neutrality and their adherence to good professional, administrative and economic standards. The law shall determine the composition and regulations of the organization and the employment conditions for its staff. It shall be consulted with respect to the bills and regulations pertaining to its scope of work.”
Thus, maintaining the professionalism, neutrality and public-service nature of the country’s official media, in addition to other media types, including the partisan, quasi-official and private, is essential. The media would be monitored and reprimanded whenever any breach of professionalism has been spotted. Appropriate space and time for retraction, correction and clarification would be guaranteed where the erring medium is expected to respect the cardinal truism of media in any democratic state, that of a law-abiding, skilful and honest fourth estate. If the NMO won’t be created, mandated and supported with all its constitutional prerogatives, the mediascape in Egypt will remain along its precarious course and regarded as one of the country’s anathemas.
Mohamed Selim Khalil is a media scholar with a research emphasis on Political
Communication in the Arab World, University of Osnabrück, Germany. Twitter @moselim