The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Closure of a newspaper
29 February 1999The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) is deeply alarmed by the Higher Press Council's decree canceling the license of Sawt Al-Umma newspaper, published by Sawt Al-Umma Publishing and Journalism House. The decree was made on grounds that the publishing house had made changes to the company's structure on which the license had been issued on 29 March 1997. These changes included the names of the shareholders and the company's board, after a number of shareholders had sold their shares to others and a new board was elected in a general shareholders assembly, on 9 February 1999. The Higher Press Council considered that these changes are a violation of article 52 of Law 96 of 1996, and article 28 of the implementation regulations of the same law, which stipulates that "In the case of failure to notify the Higher Press Council of changes in the company information after a license has been granted, or of changes in this information without the approval of the Higher Press Council, the license to publish shall be considered void"!!! The cancellation of the license of Sawt Al-Ummah newspaper, published by Sawt Al-Ummah Publishing and Journalism House, a company founded under Law 159 of 1981 for joint stock companies and the Press Law, 96 of 1996, is unprecedented and an indicator of the increase in the phenomenon of administrative intervention in press affairs. The EOHR met Essam Ismail Fahmy, Chairman of Sawt Al-Ummah Publishing and Journalism House, who stated his surprise by the refusal of the governmental Al-Ahram Printing House to print issue no. 100, scheduled for 21st February 1999, on grounds of governmental directives. He described the ban as irrational and unbalanced and added that he received a letter from the corporation authority dated 24 February 1999, advising him that after reviewing the minutes of the company's general assembly meeting, held on 9 February 1999, the sale of shares and the changes in the company board had several procedural violations. He also received a letter from the Higher Press Council notifying him of the cancellation of the company license. He went on to assure that all the procedures of the sale of shares and the board meeting were in accordance with the law, and that even if there were any procedural mistakes, the administration should resort to the judiciary, in accordance with the corporate law and article 300 of its implementation regulations, but that the revoking of the license is a violation of the law and the Constitution. The EOHR believes that this decision is a serious violation of freedom of expression and opinion and the right to establish publications, and a grave violation of the Constitution. The most alarming matter was that the Higher Press Council could rely on the same reasons used against Sawt Al-Ummah against any party or independent press if they were to make any changes to the administrative or editorial structure or the board of directors, or change their printing house without notifying the Higher Press Council, or even if it is notified but does not approve of the changes. The legal researchers studied all the documents presented by the Sawt Al-Ummah Publishing and Journalism House in the light of international covenants, the Constitution, and Law 96 of 1996 and the corporate law and concluded the following: 1. The Higher Press Council's decree is a violation of articles 48 and 308 of the Egyptian Constitution, which stipulate that freedom of the press and publishing is guaranteed, and that it is prohibited to suspend or revoke it by administrative decrees. 2. The decree is based on article 28 of the implementation regulations, issued by the administration to implement the law, and article 144 of the Constitution stipulates that implementation regulations must not stipulate any alterations to the law or suspend their enforcement or exempt from their stipulations. Therefore, the implementation regulation used in this case violates the law, as it stipulates the cancellation of a license if any changes are made to the company structure, a matter not stipulated in the original law. 3. Sawt Al-Ummah is published by Sawt Al-Ummah Publishing and Journalism House, registered as a joint stock company in the corporation authority, which means that any changes in the company, whether in the board of directors or in the shareholders, do not affect the validity of the license, bearing in mind that joint stock companies are put in the stock exchange for trading, and that this might naturally lead to changes in the board of directors according to ownership percentage. 4. The implementation regulation has taken liberty in interpreting the notification to the Higher Press Council, turning it more into a request for permission. This contradicts the legal concept of notification, which is simply limited to a declaration of changes, and even if that is not carried out, it does not justify the nullification of the procedures or the cancellation of the license. The EOHR believes that this decree is the equivalent of a death sentence for an entity and an assassination of a newspaper. It constitutes a blatant violation of freedom of expression and a threat to basic human rights, as well as a serious indicator of the increasing intervention of the administration to limit freedom of the press and a restriction on citizens and companies to publish newspapers. The EOHR repeats its firm stance against any form of governmental intervention in the affairs of the press. Most of all, it calls for the separation of the Higher Press Council from the Shura Council, and that it be turned into an independent body that adheres to its role in regulating press affairs in a manner that guarantees independence and press freedom. Finally, the EOHR renews its call on the authorities to respect freedom of expression, a right stipulated in the Constitution and international covenants on human rights ratified by the Egyptian government. ---- 1. The Higher Press Council is a governmental body which enjoys artificial personality, headed by the Head of the Shura Council, and whose members are selected by presidential decree. 2. Sawt Al-Umma is a joint stock company established on 12 January 1997 as an independent newspaper according to Law 159 of 1981 for joint stock companies and the press law, Law 96 of 1996. The first issue of the Sawt Al-Umma newspaper was released in March 1997. A number of changes were decided at the company's general assembly on 9 February 1999, according to which Essam Ismail Fahmy became chairman of the board. It is worth noting that Essam Fahmy is the former chairman of the board of Al-Dostour newspaper, which was closed by administrative decision in February 1998. Fahmy nominated as editorial advisors Adel Hamouda, former deputy editor of Rose Al-Youssef magazine, who was transferred to Al-Ahram newspaper by administrative decision, and Ibrahim Eissa, former chief editor of Al-Dostour and Alf Leila newspapers, the second cancelled also by administrative decision in August 1998.
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