Egypt axes media ministry: reform or ruse?
Scrapping of Information Ministry prompts debate on whether the move is a victory for media freedoms or just a ruse
Plagued by scandal and condemnations over press freedom, Egypt’s Ministry of Information has been eliminated from the new government lineup, prompting debate over whether the move is a victory for media freedoms or merely a ruse.
The portfolio was officially scrapped on Tuesday in a cabinet shake-up which has seen the country bid farewell to the post of Information Minister first established in 1952. The body overlooked state-owned TV and radio agencies and formulated general guidelines for broadcast.
But there has been confusion over which body (or bodies) will be assembled to replace the ministry – a decision President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could announce before general elections later this year.
At present, the National Media Council (NMC) has filled in the information minister’s role. This is in accordance with Article 211 of the constitution (approved in January) which establishes a NMC that “regulates the affairs of radio, television, and printed and digital press, among others.”
Most importantly, the article establishes that the NMC is an independent entity.
“While the ministry has been scrapped, its role is still active on the ground during this transitional phase until state media evolves and becomes overseen by an independent institution,” said Abdel Latif el-Menawy, a writer and former president of Egypt's state broadcaster.
It is also expected that Essam al-Amir, the current head of Egypt’s Radio and Television Union, will lead the state media through this transitional phase until a larger media body is created, though this has yet to be announced.
Either way, the debate over effacing the Ministry of Information has been a pivotal part of Egypt’s modern political history, particularly since the 2011 revolution, where new constitutions, cabinets and presidents have honed in on the topic.
‘Totalitarian states and dictatorships’
Despite hopes it would be scrapped back in 2011, the ministry was reinstated following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak by the military leaders in power.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had slammed the move, describing the ministry as “a government body whose primary function is to enforce media orthodoxy and punish dissent during decades of authoritarian rule” which it added was “not a suitable entity to reform the media sector."
The information ministry had “struggled to fulfill its functions,” Charles Holmes, a Middle East analyst with a background in Egypt’s government communications, told Al Arabiya News.
“Having a centralized government authority that is somehow supposed to control every aspect of state information and coordinate across all governmental institutions in a digitized environment just became outdated,” Holmes said.
“The ministry as it stood didn’t have the resources to correctly regulate the media with the proliferation of private TV channels and ended up resorting to really heavy-hand measures,” he added.
The National Coalition for Media Freedom, an alliance that includes human rights groups, research organizations, trade unions and media activists, had also rejected the re-appointment of the information minister in 2011.
"The Ministry of Information exists only in totalitarian states and dictatorships," the group had said in a statement, adding that it was a step backward for the “liberalization of media policy and independence from the executive power.”
Since the years that followed, with Islamist President Mohammad Mursi being elected in 2012 and then removed in an army-led ouster a year after, Egyptian rights groups have shined the light even more on press freedoms and the dubious ministry.
This came particularly as the ability of private media outlets to sway public opinion grew, along with Egypt being among the top 10 jailers of journalists in the world in 2013 and the third-deadliest country for the media, the CPJ reported.
While the move to scrap the ministry sounds refreshing, it has been branded by some in the media as superficial.
“This is just a cosmetic decision,” Yasser Abdel Aziz, a media analyst who began his career at the Middle East News Agency, told Al Arabiya News on Tuesday.
“It’s wrong to believe that the eradication of the post of Minister of Information will broaden media freedoms,” Abdel Aziz added.
“We are forgetting that there are other countries in the world that do not have the ministry and are still not enjoying a free media, and vice versa.”
Still, Holmes hopes that the crippled ghost of the information ministry will no longer return to haunt the country.
“From the new government’s reforming point of view, it makes a lot of sense [to scrap the ministry]. It just wasn’t working and the world’s developments had left it behind. It didn’t have the correct resources or tools; the whole process of registration, licensing and monitoring just wasn’t there,” said Holmes.
“It was like trying to hammer a very small nail, but all you have is a huge sledgehammer.”