Following a previous crackdown on “fake news,” Egyptian authorities now have their sights set on fake weather. The Egyptian Meteorological Authority (EMA), a government body responsible for domestic weather forecasting, announced that it has drafted a new law that would punish unauthorized weather forecasts in an attempt to put an end to the growing number of unauthorized reports.
Cairo-based Shorouk daily reported that in an interview with satellite TV channel DMC on April 28, head of the EMA Ahmed Abdel Aal stated that the new bill “will be submitted to the parliament shortly.” He stressed, “The EMA is the only body entitled to issue weather reports and notify concerned parties.”
The bill will become law once it is approved by the parliament and the president. In Egypt, draft laws are presented to the parliament and must be approved before being passed into law.
Abdel Aal noted that the law seeks “to hold accountable unauthorized weather forecasts and use of meteorological instruments and those causing confusion about weather conditions.”
Anyone or any authority that releases weather forecasts or uses a weather forecast device to issue a forecast is punished. The law is targeted particularly at websites and authorities that release unauthorized weather forecasts.
According to officials, the bill stipulates that violators would have to pay a fine, with the amount to be determined once the bill is submitted to parliament.
Eman Shaker, a meteorological expert at the EMA, told Al-Monitor that the agency drafted the law because unauthorized weather forecasts have increased in recent months.
The EMA released a weather forecast last week, for instance, warning citizens of a strong sandstorm in the southern and western parts of the country, and a light one in the capital. Meanwhile, social media sites and activists wrongly circulated the EMA’s weather forecast and posted information that a strong, not light, sandstorm would hit Cairo.
Relying on social media’s false circulation of the EMA report, posts making fun of the EMA went viral when the sandstorm did not hit Cairo as much as it hit the other parts of the country. Although the EMA correctly predicted that a light sandstorm would hit Cairo, an incorrect circulation of news caused confusion among citizens and even prompted some social media activists to mock the EMA.
"I have closed all windows and balcony doors, prepared the mask and everything else needed. The sandstorm is the only thing missing. The absent party is not faulty," one citizen tweeted.
Shaker noted that other authorities, such as the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, also release weather forecasts. “This leads to uncertainty and makes it harder to hold the responsible authority accountable in the presence of a panoply of bodies releasing predictions about weather conditions,” she said. “The new bill would protect the citizens’ right to obtain correct weather reports and reduce economic losses caused by contradictory weather forecasts."
However, social media activists fear that the new draft law targets freedom of expression and speech. A female engineer and social media activist, who refused to be identified, said that she hopes the new draft law would not crack down on social media users who talk about or release weather forecasts. “If that happens, it will be insane and crazy,” she told Al-Monitor.
Officials like Shaker said that the draft law only seeks to put an end to confusion with regard to weather forecasts and “not at all to limit freedom of expression and speech.”
Gamil Gamal, a lecturer in meteorology at Cairo University, said that it is the EMA’s right to prevent any other entity or person from issuing weather forecasts, as such reports can greatly affect the people’s daily activities and navigational and travel movement.
He said, however, that the EMA has to develop its own line of communication with the citizens in order to keep them updated about weather conditions and make sure they ignore other unauthorized forecasts.
“The agency has to communicate with citizens whether via text messaging or WhatsApp to keep them constantly updated about weather conditions, because the majority of citizens learn about weather conditions through social media and the [traditional] media as well. Being in direct communication with the public would end any confusion,” he added.
The draft law comes as extreme weather conditions such as heavy rainfall, floods and sandstorms hit Egypt lately. In New Cairo, a wealthy neighborhood located on the outskirts of the capital, residents panicked April 25 as rainwater levels in the streets rose, submerging vehicles.
Poor infrastructure was blamed for what happened in New Cairo, and officials at the Administrative Control Authority were accused of not being prepared for the extreme weather conditions; they were suspended and referred to the Public Prosecution.
Egypt has been cracking down on false news and reports in general since the beginning of the year. In March, the Public Prosecution established a hotline for citizens to report fake news in the media.
Gamal said the EMA should further focus on coordinating with the relevant authorities to immediately deal with any unusual and extreme weather conditions. “We still lack crisis management response capabilities, especially when it comes to the weather,” he concluded.