Egypt's New Model for Clamping Down on Media Is Just What Netanyahu Needs

New regulations propose legal, patriotic and sufficiently vague guidelines for permitted content – whose interpretation is conveniently left to the government and its agencies

Egyptian women lining up to vote in the country's constitutional referendum in Cairo, Jan. 14, 2014.
Khalil Hamra/AP

It was worth waiting for. After weeks of discussion and indecision, Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation finally published an updated series of restrictions to be imposed on all media outlets and social media.

All the Israeli government has to do now is to translate them and make the main ones into law before the September 17 election. Such directives are surely what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs in waging his crazy war against the media in Israel.

Instead of vilification and invective, Egypt's new regulations propose legal, patriotic and sufficiently vague guidelines for permitted content – whose interpretation is conveniently left to the government and its agencies.

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“No opinions and reports are to be published that harm the unity of the Egyptian people, its morality or the morality of its armed forces and security apparatus,” according to one new stipulation. A similar rule already exists in Egyptian law, but it apparently needed to be “refreshed” in light of repeated excesses not only in traditional media but online as well. Accordingly, any social media account with more than 5,000 followers or shares will have to abide by the new restrictions.

Another clause bans presentation of journalistic content “that could cause harm to the public interest and religious faith; could incite to violence, discrimination or hatred; damage the national fabric; or insult people with disabilities or use expressions that could arouse pity for them, when they appear before a court of law.”

The Supreme Council, which is responsible for granting publishing licenses to newspapers, will determine what constitutes incitement or insult. That decision could be appealed in the courts, but they understand full well the leader’s spirit and therefore the chances of such a challenge are nil.

The part about not exploiting emotions with respect to disabled individuals is surely the most interesting. Here is an efficient tool to use against protests by the disabled and their inconvenient roadblocks. In Egypt, this seems redundant, because disturbances of the peace are illegal, another law limits protests, and now there’s also a regulation that would keep people with disabilities out of public discourse.

The new rules also focus at length on the use of language. They demand that the media use literary Arabic – not “the language of the market or a foreign language when that is deemed unnecessary.” Expressions that may "exceed the bounds of politeness and public morality" are not to be used, and no advertisements are to be published that tarnishes the morality of Egyptian society.

Some of the rules have been hailed as progressive for focusing on the depiction of women in the media, including those banning “negative stereotypes of the housewife, the unmarried woman and the divorced woman, and attempts to blame them for family breakdown or social failure.” The new directives warn against displaying explicit scenes of verbal or physical violence against women; instead filmmakers, for example, are encouraged to present women in a new light that reflects their social, political and cultural engagement. A fine idea, but lesbians are left out: They would fall under another provision against anything that encourages sexual deviancy.

Moreover, the press and social media must now avoid using women as sex symbols in advertising, and they should be portrayed in different places, not only in their homes as housewives. They are to be presented as administrators, professionals and businesswomen – realms in which women actually have little involvement in Egypt. But what does that matter when the image of the state hangs in the balance?

If Egyptian journalists think they can bypass these bans by publishing content from foreign publications – what Israeli journalists call “according to reports from foreign sources” – they are mistaken. A special clause prohibits publishing content from foreign agencies unless the reporter has personally confirmed their accuracy. Journalists must stick to objective content in their reporting that does not serve commercial bodies or any other entities. But no, the intent is not that the media will not cave in to government pressure – that would be filed under the category of service to the homeland and loyalty to the political and social fabric of the state.

The instructions also include a prohibition on using independent sources in order to report on security issues, particularly terror attacks. Journalists are permitted to publish only what approved spokesmen have told them, including regarding the numbers of casualties in terror attacks or details of military activities in general.

Leading Egyptian journalists and groups supporting media freedom are calling the new regulations “rape of the media.” Journalists organizations, they say, are authorized by the country's constitution to determine their own ethical rules. But neither the Supreme Council for Media Regulation nor President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi are very impressed by that. The latter has already chalked up an impressive list of achievements when it comes to restricting freedom of expression, and in the eyes of many, media outlets suffer from more severe limitations under his rule than that of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

The greatest disappointment perhaps is that the council is headed by Makram Mohamed Ahmed – one of Egypt’s most veteran and talented journalists. A vocal and resolute critic of the regime’s treatment of the media, he too has become its tool.