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Government offensive against freedom of expression on TV includes new broadcasting bill

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders condemns growing Egyptian government control over the media, especially the broadcast media. Egypt already has a repressive press law and a state of emergency law that has been in effect since 1981. In November, parliament is due to examine a new broadcasting bill that is causing further concern. At the same time, several production companies working with foreign satellite TV stations have already been censored this year.

"The Egyptian authorities are constantly giving themselves new tools with which to stifle free expression," Reporters Without Borders said. "Despite a level of diversity that is rare in the region, the Egyptian media must endure the yoke of political control, like the media in other Arab countries with authoritarian regimes."

The press freedom organisation added: "We call on the members of the Egyptian parliament to reject the government's new broadcasting bill and to draft alternative legislation that would lift the constraints on broadcasting and decriminalise press offences."

The bill submitted to parliament in June poses a danger to broadcast journalists. It would introduce news penalties of between one month and three years in prison and would threaten free speech by making it possible for journalists to be prosecuted for "attacking social peace, national unity, public order and society's values."

Mostly using very vague working, the bill also provides for the creation of a national broadcasting regulatory agency to be headed by information ministry officials and members of the state security services, which would be empowered to withdraw a news media's licence arbitrarily.

The Egyptian government launched an offensive against independent TV stations at the start of the year. In February, it got the Arab League to adopt a common charter that restricts the freedom of satellite TV stations and provides for sanctions for programme content that causes offence.

The charter was criticised by journalists but not by the head of Nilesat, a satellite operator owned by the Egyptian government, which supports the creation of a regional regulatory authority with the power to issue licences. This would mean that the community of Arab governments as a whole was responsible for censorship, rather than the Egyptian government alone.

At the moment, TV stations that want to transmit via Nilesat must obtain the Egyptian government's approval. TV stations that dare to criticise governments are not welcome. Unlike Qatar, which gives Al Jazeera a great deal of freedom in its regional coverage, Egypt continues to closely monitor the content of the stations that use Nilesat. The privately-owned TV station Al-Hiwar, for example was dropped by Nilesat on 1 April without any explanation being given.

In an unrelated case, the government ordered the Cairo Video Sat production company on 28 August to cancel the recording of two programmes for Al-Hurra, an Arabic-language TV station that is funded by the US government. The two programmes were about "Youth and Politics," and were to have been broadcast in the station's showcase series "Eye on Democracy."

Meanwhile, Nader Gohar, the head of the Cairo News Company (CNC), is still facing up to three years in prison on charges of "constituting an unauthorised communications network" and "broadcasting without a licence." The fifth hearing in his trial is due to be held on 26 October. The main supplier of broadcast equipment for many foreign news media, CNC was closed by the authorities after Al-Jazeera, one of its main clients, broadcast footage of demonstrations in the north of the country in April.

According to the Egypt-based Arab Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI), two other agencies, Cairo Sat and the Arab News Agency, are also being harassed by the authorities.

For further information on the Gohar case, see:

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