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An Independent Egyptian News Media Regulatory Body

An independent media regulatory body must oversee, monitor, and regulate the performance of both the state and the private print and broadcast news media. Giandomenico Majone notes that independent media regulatory bodies are

“specialized agencies, operating at arm’s length from central government . . . as a way of enhancing the credibility of the regulatory strategies/policies emanating from this independent body.”63 Along the same lines, Mark Thatcher argues that a media regulatory institution is “a body with its own powers and responsibilities given under public law, which is organizationally separated from ministries and is neither directly elected nor managed by elected officials.”64

Dumisani Moyo and Hlongwane Siphiwe also argue that independent media regulatory bodies should serve the “common good,” defined by Media scholar Denis McQuail as “the complex of supposed informational, cultural and social benefits to the wider society which go beyond the immediate, particular and individual interests of those who participate in public communication, whether as senders or receivers.”65 The Freedom of Expression Institute has also set several criteria that would guarantee the independence of a media regulatory body. These criteria stipulate that the regulatory body “be located outside government, but not necessarily outside the state; have sufficient resources to enable it [to] discharge its mandate; have control over those matters directly connected with the functions it has to perform under its founding statute; and have the tenure of its members governed by appropriate appointment removal provisions which ensure that members are appropriately qualified, do not serve at the pressure of the Executive and can be removed only on objective ground relating to job performance.”

Similarly, the Council of Europe highlighted the importance of having “specially appointed independent regulatory authorities for the broadcasting sector, with expert knowledge in the area. . . . [And] they should be defined so as to protect them against any interference, in particular by political forces or economic interests.”66

In accordance with these provisions, Egypt’s independent regulatory body must develop guidelines for journalistic professionalism and codes of ethics, and provide independent and equal training programs for both state-owned and privately owned news outlets. The body should also be given the power to grant press licenses, monitor news content, investigate and settle complaints, reprimand journalists and news outlets for violations, and suspend licenses of gross violators. Such a body would have played a useful role in Egypt’s attempted transition to democracy in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising. In a heavily politicized and polarized environment, an independent news media regulatory body could have helped to ensure greater levels of accuracy and topic and source balance, and promote a less explicitly partisan and propagandist news coverage in the press.

A good example of an independent media regulatory body is the Consejo Federal de Communicacion Audiovisual of the Federal Council for Audiovisual Communication, established in Argentina, which has an “advisory body comprised of representatives from local government, private and non-profit media, unions, university broadcasters and indigenous groups, amongst others.”67 Another example is the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa

(icasa), which “issues licenses to telecommunications and broadcasting service providers, enforces compliance with rules and regulations, protects consumers from unfair business practices and poor quality services, hears and decides on disputes and complaints brought against licensees and controls and manages the effective use of radio frequency spectrum.” In theory, icasa is an independent organ. However, “the Independent Communications Authority Act stipulates that, as an organ of state, it is accountable to the Minister of Communications through submitting its annual report.”68

In Hungary, the National Radio and Television Commission monitors the functioning of privately owned radio and television networks and issues licenses to terrestrial, privately owned satellite channels. In addition, “it has around seven members, at least five of [whom] are elected by a simple majority of all members of parliament. The remaining two are nominated by parliamentary groupings (one member per ‘grouping’).”69

We argue that, like many regulatory news media organizations, Egypt’s independent media regulatory body should also encourage the creation of a new code of journalistic ethics, although the body should not be given direct say over the code’s content. In particul ar, media professionals and journalists would have to agree upon the code of ethics. In addition, the code would be “entirely up to the profession, and neither the government nor any regulatory body should have a say in this.”70

Given Egypt’s problems of economic inequality, and the likelihood that private press outlets will come to be owned by a narrow elite class of owners, we also believe that steps should be taken to reduce the negative effects of media concentration of ownership. Specifically, we suggest that news owners be stripped of all editorial control. This is important given the extent to which wealthy media owners have influenced news content in Egypt in the past. In this new system, then, working journalists at news outlets would elect editorial boards. News owners would not have influence over the composition of editorial boards or be allowed to influence their day-to-day work. The independent media regulatory body would be charged with the task of ensuring compliance.

Moreover, the independent media regulatory body would also play a role in restructuring Egypt’s problematic press laws. The regulatory body would consult with an elected Egyptian parliament to revise press laws and constitutional articles in order to reflect the new democratic identity of the state. This legal restructuring would need to take place relatively early on in any transition. After all, “regulating the media can work only if the legal framework is in place. Apart from the general political will to liberalize the [media] sector, constitutional amendments or laws providing for the creation of a regulatory body are needed.”71 An example of a functional law that has revitalized the media scene in one country is the Audiovisual Communications Law (also known as lev de medios) in Argentina, which has played a critical role in “broadening the range of voices in [Argentina’s] democratic debate.”72 Finally, Egypt’s Syndicate of Journalists should be allowed to continue to function in any new media system. However, the organ should only look after and protect the rights of journalists and oversee the issuing of press memberships.

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