Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Journalists protest threats to free speech

The Press Syndicate is mobilising opposition to clauses in the anti-terrorism bill which allow reporters to be imprisoned if their stories  deviate from official statements. Amira Howeidy reports

Press Syndicate
Press Syndicate
Al-Ahram Weekly

Editors of Egypt’s national and privately owned press are expected to meet with the Press Syndicate today to discuss articles in the counter terrorism draft bill that threaten press freedoms.
The draft — swiftly authored following last week’s wave of terrorist attacks in Cairo and northern Sinai — has been approved by the cabinet and awaits President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s ratification before it goes into effect. No timetable has been set but given the urgency voiced by Al-Sisi after the funeral of Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat who was assassinated last week, the law is expected to be issued soon. “Swift justice is hampered by the law,” the president said on 30 June, “and we will seek to modify it.”
But the anti-terrorist draft law’s 55 articles are more than an attempt to speed up dozens of trials involving hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members currently in jail. The group, which ascended to power following the 2011 uprising, was designated a terrorist organisation in 2013 by the government. The authorities accuse the group of spearheading violence against military and police targets since the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi two years ago.
With at least five articles in the bill placing restrictions on the press, four stipulating prison sentences as punishment, the Press Syndicate has been vocal in its protests. It has released two strongly worded statements rejecting the clauses.
“Fighting terrorism should not be done by confiscating public freedoms,” said a statement issued by the syndicate on Monday following an emergency meeting. It called on the press community to unite against what it described as unconstitutional attempts to stifle press freedoms “in the name of fighting terrorism” and invited editors of privately owned and state-run newspapers for a meeting scheduled today to confront “attempts to get back at the press”.
According to Syndicate Chairman Yehia Qallash, editors of Egypt’s top newspapers have expressed “concern” and welcomed the invitation. Yet their concern hasn’t been reflected in the coverage of the proposed law in the papers they edit, which at best can be termed nonchalant. The one exception is the privately owned daily Al-Tahrir which is campaigning against the draft bill.  
“The war on the press has begun,” proclaimed its front page headline — in red — on Monday.
Criticism of the counter-terrorism draft law has focused largely on article 33, which stipulates a minimum two-year prison sentence for anyone who “deliberately” publishes “incorrect” information about terrorist operations that contradicts official statements.
The article appears to be a reaction to reports of the number of Egyptian soldiers killed in last week’s terrorist attacks in northern Sinai. Some news outlets claimed as many as 64 had died only for the army to later confirm 17 losses.
“But why are there any articles on the press included in a law that is meant to counter terrorism? What has journalism got to do with it?” asks Qallash . “This is reminiscent of the Mubarak days when it seemed that every law that was issued had to include an article or two imposing restrictions on the press.”  
In statements to French news agency AFP Justice Minister Ahmed Al-Zend said the article had been drafted partly in response to press coverage of the Sinai attack which had negatively affected the country’s “morale”. Reporters have been banned from entering Northern Sinai for the past two years, making it very difficult for the press to independently cover developments.  
The attack by Islamic State affiliated militants on military posts in northern Sinai last Wednesday, just two days after the prosecutor-general’s assassination, were unprecedented in scale, representing a frightening escalation in Egypt’s experience of terrorism. But the government’s reaction suggests it feels equally outraged by terrorist groups and the media.
A statement by the Armed Forces spokesman said the army was fighting on two fronts, against militants and a media orchestrated by foreign news outlets. Prior to the announcement the Foreign Ministry had issued guidelines, directed at foreign reporters based in Egypt, to the terminology that should be used when reporting terrorist attacks.
Al-Sisi has referred to the importance of the media on several occasions. In a 2014 speech he described late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser as “lucky” for enjoying the media’s support. Under Nasser newspapers passed into strict state control and rallied behind the president.
There are 18 imprisoned journalists in Egypt says the New York based Committee for the Protection of Journalists.  
According to Qallash today’s meeting will discuss ways to pressure the authorities into removing or amending articles relating to the press.  
“I hope we don’t have to resort to the kind of pressure we exercised under Mubarak,” he said, alluding to the Press Syndicate’s campaign since 1995 against articles introduced to the penal code imposing jail terms for publishing offences.  
Articles stipulating custodial terms for publishing offences were scrapped from the constitution in 2014. Journalists argue, therefore, that the current draft law — which punishes violators with prison terms in four articles — is unconstitutional.
“Since [article 33] of the draft law effectively obstructs the constitution, doesn’t it qualify as a terrorist clause? ”asks columnist Abdallah Al-Sennawi, a supporter of Al-Sisi. And by preventing reporters from doing their job, “how can the authorities prove that journalists deliberately published false news?”
“The [restrictions],” says Al-Sennawi, “will encourage terrorists to flood TV channels and news agencies with their news while we remain confined to official statements.”

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