The Egyptian authorities are pushing through new media and cybercrime laws that would give the state near-total control over print, online and broadcast media. Amnesty International is calling on the Egyptian parliament to reject these draconian bills and on the president to return the cybercrime law back to the parliament for amendment.
“These proposed laws would increase the Egyptian government`s already broad powers to monitor, censor and block social media and blogs, as well as criminalize content that violates vaguely defined political, social or religious norms,” said Najia Bounaim, Director of Campaigns in North Africa at Amnesty International.
The proposed cybercrime law was submitted to the president on 5 June for ratification. If passed, it will allow investigative authorities and the police to monitor and block websites for vaguely worded offences, such as publishing content that could incite crime or harm national security.
“Over the past year, the Egyptian authorities have blocked hundreds of websites without legal basis. If passed, these laws would legalize this mass censorship and step up the assault on the right to freedom of expression in Egypt, which is already one of the world’s most oppressive environments for media and journalism.”
The other three draft laws on media, initially approved by parliament on 10 June, also seek to increase the mandate of the media regulation body, known as the Supreme Council for the Organization of Media (the Supreme Council), to include the blocking of websites.
Over the past year, the Egyptian authorities have blocked 500 websites including independent news platforms and pages belonging to rights groups. Security agencies have ordered this without legal basis. In May 2017, the daily al-Masry al Youm newspaper published a report it said it had received from a security agency that claimed that the websites were “publishing false information” or “harming national security”.
The Egyptian government claims there is a “need to organise digital news platforms” through the new laws. However it is clear these bills are a way to restrict the right to freedom of expression in a way that violates both international standards and the Egyptian Constitution. The proposed laws seek to allow the blocking of news websites, under the pretext of “protecting national security and public decency”.
The proposed media bills give the Supreme Council the right to block websites and file criminal complaints against digital media platforms and individuals on the basis of vaguely worded offences such as “inciting people to violate laws” and “defamation against individuals and religions”. They also prohibit news websites from creating smartphone apps unless they have special permission from the Council, and prohibit websites from selling any advertising spaces if they are not registered with the Council.
The new bills also create a number of bureaucratic and financial hurdles for digital media outlets. Establishing an online video channel on a website now requires a company to have capital of 2,500,000 EGP.
“Every day we receive reports about people from all levels of Egyptian society who have been persecuted for Facebook posts, tweets, art work, and even personal, unpublished writing that has fallen into the hands of the Egyptian authorities,” said Najia Bounaim.
“This grim situation will be made much worse if these restrictions are written into law, giving the Egyptian authorities sweeping new powers to monitor online content. It is not too late for the authorities to withdraw these laws and commit to allowing a safe and open space for freedom of expression and association in Egypt.”
The first law, known as the Law of the Organisation of Press, Media and the Supreme Council of Media, governs the establishment of private media platforms and the behaviour of private and public media. The second law, known as the Law of the National Authority of Press, focuses on the organization of newspapers and news websites run by the state. The third law, known as the Law of the National Authority of Media, focuses on the organization of TV channels and radio stations owned by the state. The Law on Combating Crimes of Information Technology focuses on websites that publish content considered harmful to the national economy or national security.
The Supreme Council was established by presidential decree No. 158 in 2017. Since its establishment it has committed numerous violations against the media, including referring journalists to disciplinary investigations in the Press Syndicate solely for doing their work.