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The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights

Closure of a newspaper
Governmental intervention to ban Sawt Al-Umma newspaper

29 February 1999

The 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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