Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Extreme measures

A new anti-terrorism law goes into effect a day after being ratified, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

A tougher anti-terrorism law, on the government’s agenda since 2011, was ratified by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on Sunday.

First published in early July, the draft law triggered sharp criticism from political forces and from journalists who said the bill would curtail press freedoms.

The Press Syndicate issued a public statement in which it said article 33, which imposed a two-year sentence on journalists who published stories that contradicted official accounts issued by the Ministry of Defence, would seriously undermine press freedom.

“It also contravenes the constitution which prohibits custodial sentences for journalists convicted of publication offences,” said the statement.

The final draft endorsed by Al-Sisi on 16 August replaces the prison sentences of article 33 with — in article 35 — hefty fines of between LE200,000 and LE500,000. The change has not satisfied the Press Syndicate which says that, given the fines are beyond the pocket of most journalists, imprisonment — if only for the non-payment of the fine - remains a possibility.

Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Ibrahim Al-Heneidi defended the law, insisting the final draft had won the support of journalists.

“It is the result of negotiations between the government and the Press Syndicate Council which had asked for fines to replace jail terms,” said Al-Heneidi. “The law was also revised by the Higher Council of Judges to ensure the correct balance was struck between public freedoms and national security.”

Sameh Seif Al-Yazal, director of Al-Gomhouria Centre for Strategic and Political Studies, noted in a television interview that “article 35 of the final draft of the law does not target journalists but aims to punish those who want to harm national security by publishing false news about the Egyptian army”.

Al-Yazal insists local media coverage of terrorist activities and national security issues must toe the official line.

“We saw how local media outlets spread disinformation following the attacks against the army by militants from Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in north Sinai on 1 July,” says Al-Yazal.

Al-Heneidi said article 35 leaves journalists subject to heavy fines only when three conditions are met.

“The news they publish about terrorist crimes inside Egypt must be false. They must publish or disseminate this false news deliberately and the stories they write must contradict official statements issued by the Ministry of Defence.”

“The draft does not infringe on press freedom. The majority of Egyptian journalists, who seek accuracy, will face no penalties.”

“Article 35 was not drafted to intimidate journalists,” says Al-Yazal, “but to stem the tide of false information which can impact on the morale of the army, cause public panic and spread chaos.”

Critics of the law warn that it grants the president overwhelming powers that contradict the spirit of the new constitution.

Lawyer Essam Al-Islambouli points out that article 53, which gives the president the authority to invoke all “necessary measures” to impose security and public order, might have been drawn from the statute books of both Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Lawyer Shawki Al-Sayed disagrees, stressing that “article 53 stipulates that for the president to invoke the above powers he must first seek the approval of parliament, or the cabinet if parliament is not in session”.

“We have seen how terrorists infiltrated the border between Egypt and Gaza to mount attacks against the Egyptian army and police. We need legislation in areas like North Sinai that allows all necessary measures to be taken to combat extremism, even if this means the mass evacuation of the public from trouble spots,” says Al-Sayed.

Al-Islambouli is at least reassured that the Higher Council for Judges which took charge of revising the law rejected government-drafted amendments aimed at shortening the trials of militants. “Thankfully they observed the principle of the right to a fair trial,” he says.

The original draft limited defendants to a single appeal against a verdict. The Higher Council of Judges rejected the change, upholding the right of convicts to two appeals.

The law gives police officers and prosecutors additional powers to combat terrorism, and beefs up mandatory sentences for terror related crimes.

Article 1, paragraph 6 of the law criminalises all funding of terrorist activities, or of any organisation designated as terrorist, and stipulates either life in prison or a death sentence for those found guilty.

Al-Heneidi says the new law will stem the tide of funding going to terrorist organisations which target police and army personnel. “

The law defines the funding of terrorism as “the collection or the acquisition or the supply of money, weapons, ammunition, explosives or information with the objective of carrying out a terrorist crime or to create a safe haven for terrorists.”

Article 1, paragraph 3 defines a terrorist crime as one seeking to cause disorder by use of force, violence, threats or intimidation.

While the Press Syndicate criticised article 35 political parties have generally welcomed the law, arguing that any article that breaches press freedoms will be eliminated by the coming parliament.

Wagih Shehab, spokesman of the Free Egyptians Party, says the anti-terrorism law is timely and will help reinforce security forces in their battle against terrorists who infiltrate Egypt’s borders from Libya or Gaza. “It also comes at the right moment to help safeguard the upcoming parliamentary elections,” argued Shehab.

Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the Reform and Development Party, says exceptional circumstances in Egypt and the Middle East made a tougher anti-terrorism law inevitable.

He insists, however, that “once elected the new parliament will, as stipulated by the constitution, revise all laws issued by the president.”

“And it will do so,” says Al-Sadat, “in a way that ensures the necessary balance is maintained between security and freedom.”

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