Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Blanket bans

Legal experts argue that the prosecution-general’s right to prevent the publication of news needs to be restricted, reports Mona El-Nahhas

Al-Ahram Weekly

Headlines reading “No to publishing bans” and “No to press gags” appeared on the front pages of many newspapers and online publications in response to recommendations made during the 4 May emergency general assembly of the Press Syndicate.

The assembly was called after security forces raided the syndicate on 2 May and arrested journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Saqqa. During the raid the syndicate’s headquarters were blockaded by police and hired thugs.

On 3 May Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadeq banned any news coverage of the arrest of Badr and Al-Saqqa until investigations are complete. The prosecutor’s office says the two journalists were arrested on the basis of a warrant issued on 19 April and that police followed all due process.

Badr and Al-Saqqa are accused of agitating for protests on 25 April. They have been remanded on custody for two weeks pending investigations and are being held in Tora prison.

The Press Syndicate has announced it will contest the publishing ban in the administrative court. Until the court issues a judgement, however, journalists remain obliged to respect the blanket ban or face the possibility of imprisonment and fines.

On 3 May the Supreme Press Council called for restrictions to be placed on the use of publishing bans in cases related to public freedoms. The ban on reporting the Badr and Al-Saqqa case is the 18th to be issued in less than two years. The majority of bans relate to public opinion cases or investigations into corruption in which senior officials have been implicated.

During the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak just 10 publishing bans were issued. In 2015, 14 publishing bans were decreed, and four orders have already been issued in 2016, leading legal experts to warn that the administrative decrees are being abused.

In 2015, coverage of the murder of activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, shot by a policeman while taking part in a peaceful march marking the anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, was banned.

Bans were also placed on reporting on the death of lawyer Kareem Hamdi, killed while under detention at Matareyya police station; an antiquities smuggling case involving a policeman and two members of judicial bodies; the assassination of Prosecutor-General Hesham Barakat; a bribery case in which one of the accused was the head of the appeals court; a corruption case involving a former minister of agriculture; the killing of Mexican tourists in the Western Desert by soldiers; the NGO foreign-funding case; the report by the Central Auditing Agency purporting to reveal the extent of corruption in government bodies; and the trial of 111 activists for taking part in 25 April demonstrations.

Protecting national security, guaranteeing the integrity of investigations and avoiding undue influence on the legal process have all been cited as reasons for the issuing of publishing bans.

But given the prevalent recourse to bans, many legal experts now argue that their use needs to be restricted. Article 68 of the constitution requires the state to protect citizens’ access to information. “The number of publishing bans being issued could well count as a constitutional violation,” constitutional expert Nour Farahat told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Such bans, said Farahat, are an exceptional right that can be exercised by investigation authorities “to keep evidence safe and guarantee the integrity of investigations”.

He continued, “Legislation is needed that clearly defines the conditions in which publishing bans can be imposed and sets out clear legal challenges for bans that have been issued to be contested before the courts.”

On 3 May lawyer Saber Ammar told the CBC satellite channel, “The repeated issuing of publishing bans creates a state of confusion among the public and opens the door to rumours and false news.” He also pointed out that the bans do not apply to international media or social networking sites.

Lawyer Amir Salem argues that bans on media coverage issued without clearly justifiable reasons violate the constitution because they restrict freedoms.

“None of the bans issued in the last two years had convincing reasons,” said Salem, warning that they appear to serve political rather than investigative ends.

“The expansion in the use of such decrees constitutes a threat to the independence of the prosecution and the judiciary, something which requires a serious stance from civil society.”

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