From unrealized legislation in Tunisia to the example of the US Federal Communications Commission, a spectrum of international examples of media regulation was presented at a conference titled “Egypt and International Models of Broadcast Regulation and Accountability.” Guest speakers from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco spoke about how media regulation works in their home countries and provided lessons for Egypt as it embarks on reform of its broadcast laws. The conference was organized by AUC’s Kamal Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism with the support of a grant from the Open Society Foundation. Although more questions were raised than answered at the February 17th conference, held at the Cairo Marriott in Zamalek, everyone agreed that any efforts toward building a viable and fair regulatory system must be overseen by a pluralistic and independent regulatory body.
The conference opened with remarks from Hafez Al Mirazi, Director of the Adham Center and a respected journalist, talk show host and outspoken advocate for the decentralization of Egyptian broadcast media. Speaking to an audience of media professionals, journalists and academics, Al Mirazi called for the beginning of a national conversation about how Egypt should rewrite its media laws. While Egypt’s new constitution has provided some new guarantees for print and newspaper journalism, said Al Mirazi, it does not deal with broadcast media, channel ownership and the distribution of terrestrial frequencies (monopolized by the Egyptian government since 1934). Soon questions will have to be answered about how television and radio channels are distributed, to whom, and based on what criteria. Rather than “reinventing the wheel,” Al Mirazi concluded, Egypt should look at and learn from how other countries have regulated media ownership, dealt with violations of the media, and established codes of ethics.
The opening panel featured five Cairo-based diplomats from the countries whose regulatory frameworks were presented at the conference—Ambassadors Michael Bock of Germany, Anne Patterson of the United States, Mahmoud El Khomiri of Tunisia, Nicolas Galey of France, and Daniel Drake, Chargé D’Affaires of the British Embassy. The panel was moderated by Nabil Fahmy, AUC’s Dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and former ambassador to the US. Fahmy emphasized the importance of establishing a public dialogue on freedom of expression during this critical, transitional period in Egypt and urged Egyptians to listen to other examples in order to best empower its media to perform without fear of punishment, or risk adding to “chaos” in the country.
German Ambassador Michael Bock, who has served in Cairo since 2009, followed Ambassador Fahmy’s remarks by stressing the fundamental principles of media regulation valid in all countries: “There must be no censorship in advance of publication or broadcast, media sources must be protected, and the media must be allowed to develop means of self-control.” Ambassador Bock also cautioned that while Egypt’s revolution showed the potential for social media to be helpful, such media can also infringe on people’s rights; thus, a balance must be struck between these rights and the public interest. Finally, Bock reminded the audience of the importance of protecting the foreign press in Egypt, noting that an Egyptian journalist heads the Foreign Press Association in Germany.
United States Ambassador Anne Patterson’s remarks focused more on the Egyptian media’s responsibilities than on regulation per se. She began by saying that no human rights issue was of greater importance in Egypt today than freedom of the media, given its role as a forum for public debate and mutual understanding. She commended the role played by Egyptian journalists prior to and during the revolution and paid tribute to the vitality and diversity of Egypt’s post-revolutionary media. She then offered some pointed criticisms of the Egyptian media climate.
Referring to Egypt’s current government, she observed that “those who find themselves in the public eye are well-advised to work on acquiring thicker skins instead of wasting time and resources suing their detractors;” political leaders, she added, should not “take themselves too seriously.” And just as the revolution raised Egyptians’ expectations of their political leaders, so did it increase their expectations of the media. She called for “real facts, well-researched and documented stories, and investigative reporting that challenges the authorities to follow through on their commitments,” stating that a healthy democracy must have “a professional, ethical and authoritative media, one that can be relied on to do its homework instead of making things up.” While various kinds of yellow and tabloid-style journalism are unavoidable in a democratic society, she said, in Egypt the media “tends to traffic in conspiracy theories” about the United States. “The bottom line,” she cautioned, “is that Egyptian journalism must transform itself if it is to continue to be relevant.”
Ambassador Patterson also expressed concern about the high number of court cases launched against journalists “simply for speaking their minds” and the “alarming attempts to intimidate journalists” at Egypt’s Media Production City, “with little response from the authorities.” She also called for an end to the harassment and intimidation of Egyptian media figures, citing how one media outlet had been sued 200 times in recent months.
Ambassador Mahmoud El Khomiri of Tunisia—where post-revolution efforts to reform the media and strengthen press freedoms have been largely thwarted by the coalition government—acknowledged the transitional nature of the reform process. He called attention to the government’s establishment of the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communications (HAICA) and insisted that the government’s policy regarding media was founded on freedom, independence and the creativity of the media. He then spoke about two articles passed by the interim government in November 2011 and still not implemented by the current government—decree laws 115 and 116, one concerning the freedom and regulation of journalists and the other regulating broadcast media. He enumerated some of the problems that the current government has with each law and spoke about current efforts to reach a resolution, which he suggested would happen soon.
Ambassador Nicolas Galey of France spoke about the central role that journalists and a free press have in protecting democracy historically in France and today in post-revolutionary Egypt. Any sanctions on the media, he said, must be based upon legal systems overseen by independent regulatory councils. Ambassador Galey briefly outlined the evolution of broadcast media regulation in France, controlled by the High Council for Broadcasting (CSA). Concluding the panel, Daniel Drake of the British Embassy noted that the UK’s recent experience with the Leveson Inquiry (reporting on the ethics of the British press in the wake of the News International phone hacking scandal) was a reminder that Egypt should learn from others’ mistakes as well as successes in media regulation.
The first panel examined European models of media regulation and accountability and was moderated by Amr Hamzawy, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo and former Member of Parliament. Chris Banatvala, former Director of Standards at the UK’s independent broadcast regulator Office of Communications (Ofcom), spoke about the need for balance between freedom of expression and public interest, noting that no public figure is above criticism. “Public figures should expect to be offended,” he said, “And no one has the right not to be offended by media content.” In his presentation, Banatvala outlined the UK regulatory system. He stressed that it is the UK Parliament, not the government, that sets overall goals for regulation and passes legislation and that it should not otherwise be involved in regulation, for that is the job of Ofcom.
Banatvala also emphasized the importance of a media regulator that does not affect media content prior to broadcast, i.e. that all regulation should be post-transmission and therefore not censorship. He stressed the importance of transparency when the regulator is holding the media accountable—accomplished by a clear, consistent and public process disseminated on multiple platforms. Finally, Banatvala spoke about the importance of establishing a healthy culture of regulation in which it is more important how regulatory power is exercised than the power of the regulator itself.
Françoise Laborde, a veteran journalist and member of the High Council for Broadcasting (CSA) of France, began by noting that while freedom of expression in France goes back to Voltaire and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the actual legal application has taken time. It was not until the 1980s that press monopolies were ended and France’s press laws and regulatory framework were clarified. Laborde said that the first role of the CSA was to make sure that political pluralism was upheld; subsequently, the body turned to legislative amendments to ensure plurality of opinion, equal access in radio and television electoral campaigns, equal allocation of frequencies to operators, upholding of human dignity, and protecting consumers. Today, in a reflection of industry changes, the mission of the CSA focuses on technological and economic aspects of media, including supervision of the Internet, on-demand AV services and other digital matters. Laborde also stressed CSA’s role in ensuring that all content is correct, especially in health or medical programming, that women’s issues and image are accurately and variously depicted, and that special needs groups are served.
Speaking about the German model of regulation, Ronald Meinardus, Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty in the Middle East and North Africa, stressed that regulation of the media exists to strengthen democratic order and to balance societal needs in a peaceful manner—particularly important in the Egyptian context. He said that regulation must include norms that prevent incitement and violence against minorities in a society and he stressed that media must have civic and educational roles. Drawing on his own experience becoming a certified journalist in Germany, he also called for establishing professional training standards for journalists in Egypt.
During the question and answer session, former head of Egyptian state television Osama El-Sheikh noted that while everyone agrees on the need for a free and professional press, Egypt has a particular issue with the relationship between ownership and the state administration, whether in the realm of private channels or public or state channels that serve the general public. He questioned whether any television station can be independent as long as its funds are controlled by a certain party. As for the private channels—which in Egypt are for the most part owned by individuals not institutions—El-Sheikh characterized them as often having special agendas, lacking professionalism and being susceptible to interference from foreign or “unknown” sources. He asked what regulations in Europe limit the influence of private owners in determining content of their channel.
Cairo University media professor Basyouni Hamada, referring to Egyptian journalists’ demands that there be absolutely no limits on freedom of expression, asked when and under what conditions journalists in the West are given limits, including jail sentences. Meinardus responded by stating that journalists should only go to jail for illegal acts unrelated to their profession and that media should be kept accountable via training, editorial responsibility, and institutional codes of ethics. Laborde, responding to El-Sheikh’s questions, said that an independent regulator was the best guarantor of transparency through its ability to sanction channels and ensure plurality. For Banatvala, solutions to many questions of regulation and outdated licensing models lie in media convergence. Some common themes emerged, namely that no journalist can be imprisoned for his opinion, that citizens have a right to information, and that governments should be prohibited from directly operating media outlets.
In the second panel, which treated with regulatory models in the United States, CBS News producer Douglas Smith spoke about the regulation of television in the context of the threat of civil lawsuits. He also laid out the differences in privacy standards between private and public individuals in the US, and underlined the need for instituting a culture of professional journalistic standards. He spoke about the process of obtaining permissions to film, stating that certain laws also protect the human dignity and privacy of certain individuals in the US.
Former Chief Counsel to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Robert Corn-Revere maintained that all US regulation is based upon protecting the freedoms of expression as outlined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. He explained the structure of the FCC and noted that “technology, censorship and regulation have always gone together.” He also stressed that the US punishes media violations only after the fact, as punishment subsequent to broadcast is not censorship. Some questions asked of the panelists included how to create balanced regulation that ensures both freedom of expression and media responsibility and how media institutions deal with the speed of technological development in the US. Smith responded by affirming that journalistic training is vital to establishing a culture of media accuracy, and that a code of ethics can help overcome ideological bias. Corn-Revere noted that households should bear the responsibility for restricting media content, as technology has removed all barriers to global media with different cultural concepts of appropriateness. Similar to the European panel, this panel reinforced several fundamental facts, i.e. that journalists cannot be imprisoned for their opinions, that media organizations are rarely punished for violations with removal of their licenses, and that financial penalties are sufficient to deter such violations.
The final panel examined attempts at media regulation in Arab countries. Kamel Labidi, President of the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform (INRIC) in Tunisia, described his committee’s recommendations for freedom of expression and media regulation. Although the Tunisian government ignored its proposals, the committee’s report preserved the right of free access to information and proposed the formation of an independent regulatory body. Speaking about efforts to regulate media in Libya since the revolution, Hassan El Amin, member of the Media Committee of the General National Council, described attempts to manage media content in a shifting media environment. El Amin also explained that the confusion of competing media committees led the government to institute a Ministry of Information, and that in Libya legislation is still lacking to resolve regulatory issues.
Salah Eddine El Ouadie, a former member of Morocco’s Supreme Committee for Audiovisual Communication, outlined his country’s efforts over the last decade to create an independent regulator for broadcast media. Laying out the role of the Supreme Committee, El Ouadie highlighted the constitutional protection of the committee’s independence and its role as a monitor of media content, including the degrees of sanctions that it occasionally levies on media institutions. Questions for this panel included whether journalists were represented on these various media committees and what legal protections journalists had to protect them from jail. Labidi replied that incitement to violence or hate speech could lead to jail time for any citizen in Tunisia, while Salah Eddine said that media regulation has been a slow, but gradual process in Morocco.
In concluding remarks, Adham Center Director Hafez Al Mirazi suggested a series of recommendations for media regulation in Egypt. He affirmed the positive yet unrealized recommendations for cooperation between government and media entities in the Tunisian proposal submitted by INRIC, noting its call for a non-partisan and independent regulatory committee composed of media figures as well as members from the executive and legislative branches. He highlighted the panelists’ emphasis on the importance of journalism training as a way to improve media accountability, for editors as well as reporters. To control media violations, he said, senior editors should take responsibility for content published or broadcast by their organization instead of holding individual journalists accountable.
Al Mirazi also identified a major obstacle to reform in Egypt, namely the lack of political will. Any reform efforts must concentrate on building a political consensus and desire to implement change. In building this political consensus, the concept of plurality is the most important dimension, for minority as well as majority voices must be represented within a regulatory framework in order to maintain political balance. Many regulatory models, he observed, suggested that journalists should only be sent to jail for illegal behavior as opposed to being imprisoned for acting within the bounds of their profession. Furthermore, laws involving media regulation should also guarantee free access to information for ordinary citizens as well as journalists. Finally, Al Mirazi observed that almost all models discussed in the conference use a post-transmission regulatory system, thus avoiding the potential for censorship.