Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Escalation continues

The Press Syndicate says it will contest the draft anti-terror law that seeks hefty fines for journalists who publish information contrary to official statements, reports Khaled Dawoud

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Al-Ahram Weekly

 The uproar over the draft anti-terror law, and particularly articles related to access to information and freedom of the press, is unlikely to come to an end anytime soon. Board members of the Press Syndicate said they were not satisfied with what the government offered as a compromise, which was to replace a two-year jail term if information contrary to official statements is published with an extremely hefty fine ranging between LE200,000 and LE500,000. The syndicate said the amendment was a farce because journalists would not be able to pay such a huge fine, meaning they would still end up in jail.

After the assassination of prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat on 29 June and the coordinated attack by terrorists in Northern Sinai in which 21 army soldiers and officers were killed two days later, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said laws should be amended to assure the “successful fight against terror” and “swift justice”. The cabinet of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb responded immediately with a sweeping draft anti-terror law that is still under review. The law aims at cutting short legal procedures in terror-related trials, provides legal protection for police and army personnel involved in combating terror, allows police to hold suspects for longer periods before notifying prosecutors, and grants the president the right to declare a temporary state of emergency in troubled areas without following the procedures stated in the constitution.

In light of the fact that Egypt has had no parliament over the past three years, the draft, when concluded by the cabinet, only needs to be ratified by the president before it is made officially into law.

The first draft released in the anti-terror law was widely criticised by legal experts, several political parties, the Press Syndicate and many human rights organisations, saying it clearly violated many basic rights and protections guaranteed in the 2014 constitution. Journalists were particularly alarmed by Article 33 in the draft law that set a penalty of two years in jail in case they “publish information contrary to official statements issued by concerned bodies”. The syndicate sent a memo to the cabinet, and also held a meeting with Mehleb, to stress their opposition to the article, as well as three other articles that included sentences of up to five years imprisonment in case of publication offenses whether in newspapers, online news websites or even social media. A fifth article opposed by the syndicate in the draft law bans journalists from filming trials in terror-related crimes, and imposes a financial penalty of LE10,000 for violators. That followed allegations by security officials that suspects charged with terror crimes use their trials to pass on messages to their followers outside.

Shortly before the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, the cabinet held a meeting on 16 July. Official spokesman Hossam Kawish announced that in light of the meeting held between Mehleb and the syndicate, together with editors of several major newspapers, the cabinet decided to abolish the jail term stated in Article 33, and replace it with a financial fine. He added that “the fine, ranging from LE200,000 to LE500,000 will be imposed for publishing false or incorrect information on anti-terror operations carried out by the military or the Interior Ministry.”

During the coordinated attack on more than a dozen army checkpoints in Northern Sinai on 1 July, the official army spokesman was silent for several hours while international news agencies and several pan-Arab television channels, including Sky News Arabia, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, reported that at least 70 Egyptian army soldiers and officers were killed. Nearly 12 hours later, the army issued its first statement, saying only 17 army personnel were killed, including 13 soldiers and four officers. The second day, the army said four more bodies were found, bringing the total to 21.

Al-Sisi was clearly furious, and charged during a field visit to Sinai on 3 July that the initial reports which circulated on the number of victims by the international media were an intentional plan to weaken the morale of the Egyptian armed forces. He was particularly critical of the local media for reporting the same figures, without waiting for the official army statement. In an iftar meal he hosted for families of officers and soldiers killed in anti-terror attacks on 14 July, Al-Sisi noted during the war of attrition between Egypt and Israel in 1968, “There were martyrs killed every day. But nobody knew about it, and that’s why the state was strong. Today, whenever anyone falls, all of Egypt knows about it. This is good, but it has a negative influence on Egyptians, and the morale of Egyptians will definitely be affected. We need to protect the state in this ongoing huge challenge.”

The syndicate’s Secretary-General Gamal Abdel-Rehim said the majority of Egypt’s journalists have been on the front line in the war against terror since the army’s removal of former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013. Abdel-Rehim added, however, that fighting terror should not mean violating basic rights and protections stated in the constitution, including the fact that journalists should not be jailed in publication offenses due to the nature of their profession. He added that in case the president approved the anti-terror law, even after replacing the two-year jail term with a financial fine, the syndicate would contest its constitutionality at the Supreme Constitutional Court. He insisted that the article should be abolished, not amended.

In the memo the syndicate presented to the cabinet nearly two weeks ago, it noted that Article 33 would practically speaking bring to an end the profession of journalism as is practiced all over the world, giving reporters the right to seek information from several sources to confirm the credibility of a story. The memo added there was no need for such new laws, considering that the same violations were punished by the existing criminal law which bans the publication of false information related to army activities. “This law wants to turn all of us from journalists to postmen,” said Hanan Fikri, board member of the Journalists Syndicate. “By publishing only official information, which is not always accurate, we will lose our credibility and lag behind what is reported in all other media all over the world,” Fikri added.

Abdel-Rehim said the amendment to Article 33 proposed by the cabinet last week “was more dangerous than the jail term because no journalist in Egypt would be able to pay such an extremely huge fine. Thus, the journalist will go to jail, and many newspapers could close down.” He pointed out that in most publication offenses, cases are filed against the reporter, the editor-in-chief and the publisher, or board chairman. “If the three were convicted, and each pays LE500,000, that would be the end of the newspaper they work for,” he said. The average salary of a starting journalist in Egypt could be as low as LE1,000 and even less for young journalists who work for news websites.

Khaled Al-Balshi, board member of the Press Syndicate, also criticised the government for disregarding the recent demands presented to it by the syndicate and editors of major newspapers, and claimed that Prime Minister Mehleb “broke his promise to us that he would respond positively to our demands”. He also noted that the government “should give up this old [former president Hosni] Mubarak style of facing any problem by issuing tougher laws that imposes penalties over very general and unspecific charges”. Al-Balshi was referring to the three other articles opposed by the syndicate that set a penalty of up to five years imprisonment for those who launch websites or use social media to “incite violence, terrify citizens, threaten social peace or provoke instability.”

Al-Balshi claimed that the true intention of the new anti-terror law “was to silence any opposition. In its present form, the law amounts to a declaration of war against the society, those who truly want to fight terror by publishing accurate information, and those who insist on their right to freedom and the necessity of respecting the constitution, instead of arguing that it was too ambitious.” He was clearly referring to the statements made by Al-Sisi, also during the iftar on 14 July, saying the “current constitution is ambitious, and it will take time to implement it gradually”.

Salah Eissa, secretary-general of the Supreme Press Council tasked with appointing editors and board chairmen of government-owned newspapers, said he also supported the demand by the Press Syndicate to abolish Article 33. “However, in light of ongoing terror attacks, and in case a newspaper or any other media intentionally publishes false information, the penalty should be replaced with a fine ranging from LE30,000 to LE50,000,” Eissa suggested.

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