Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1151, 6 - 12 June 2013
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1151, 6 - 12 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time: Press freedom — 1923 style


The Egyptian press was a major player in the national movement, especially after World War I. When Saad Zaghloul was exiled in Malta, the whole country rose in revolt. From then on, the question of press freedom became paramount in Egyptian life, as the debate within the committee writing the 1923 constitutions shows.
During the war, censorship was the norm, and many newspapers which faced bans and confiscation during the war failed to survive. Al-Shaab, Al-Muayed and Al-Garida all folded, but some, such as Al-Ahram and Al-Mokattam managed to stay in business.
Following the end of the war, restrictions on the press remained, forcing the political opposition to distribute leaflets and booklets to voice its views.
The future authors of the 1923 constitution were therefore eager to end restrictions on the press when they met on 15 August 1922 under Ahmed Heshmat. The matter of press freedom came up in Article 34, the first draft of which stated that “the freedom of opinion is guaranteed, every person has the right to express freely his thoughts either by speech or through writing in the press or in pictures, within the boundaries set by the law.
The phrasing was met by opposition. Abdel-Latif Al-Mekbati Bey said that the phrase, “within the boundaries set by the law” robs the article of all substance. He suggested the alternative wording: “within the boundaries of general laws”.
According to Al-Mekbati, it was wrong to set the boundaries for the press within a specific law, for the press already comes under the provisions of the country’s general laws.
Ali Maher Bey, recognising the difficulty, proposed a new wording: “The freedom of the press is guaranteed, and the press cannot be placed under censorship or limited by privilege. Actions associated with the abuse of this freedom are to be specified by the law.”
The wording proposed by Maher meant that the parliament was not entitled in normal circumstances to place the press under any censorship, and that the administrative authorities had no right to prevent anyone of publishing a newspaper. If someone abuses the freedom of the press, Maher pointed out, the matter should be addressed through ordinary laws.
One member of the committee drafting the constitution, Mohamed Ali Bey, said that not everyone should be allowed to publish a paper. Maher reacted by saying that any conditions placed on journalists, as in not having a criminal record, should be specified and not left to the administration to decide.
Abdel-Aziz Fahmi Bey agreed with Maher’s point of view. “There is no need for prior permit by any authority for publications. Nor should there be any guarantee required from the author of a bulletin or its director or printer.”
A debate ensured on whether the press should be completely free from any hindrances or should operate under a set of conditions for the protection of the public from slander or misinformation. Should the parliament, for example, pass laws to prevent slander or blackmail by disreputable journalists? Or should the matter be left to the public to decide, in the hope that papers publishing wrong or wrongful material are likely to see their circulation drop?
Mohamed Ali’s opinion was that the parliament should be given the power to issue laws to guarantee order and privacy from the possible excesses of the press. Maher begged to disagree, pointing out that in ordinary circumstances the parliament must not pass laws that may allow the government to censor the press or deny it publication permits.
Fahmi once again proposed an alternative wording. “The wording which Ali Bey Maher suggested [allows] everyone to engage in journalism without permit, and [bans] censorship or administrative penalties. The wording he suggested is not compatible with the law that you have endorsed, and must be changed to: No need for prior permit from any authority whatsoever.”
At this point, Maher argued that “the freedom of the press means the freedom to publish newspapers, because the freedom of opinion and writing are matters we already established, and the freedom to publish newspapers is meant to oppose the obstacles and hurdles placed in its way, most important of which are censorship and permits,” he stated.
Maher was not opposed to the press being held responsible for what it writes. But he didn’t want journalists to be impeded by neither publication permits nor censorship, he explained. “By no censorship, I do not mean that the press is not answerable for what they publish. No, I agree with you that the parliament may in special cases provide a longer list of press crimes, because I am against chaos. But all of this has to be addressed after the newspapers are published. What we are concerned about is censorship of the press before it is published. This is the kind of censorship that constitutions must ban,” Maher went on. He asserted that the “principle of non-censorship” was established in many countries, including Prussia and Turkey.
“As much as we are against chaos we are against tyranny. So let’s please agree that censorship of newspapers ahead of publications is prohibited,” Maher said. “Every individual has the right to issue a newspaper without need of special permit as long as he meets the qualifications decided by the law, so that the administration wouldn’t be free to deny permits on a whim or discriminate among people.”
On 6 October 1922, the debate continued with Fahmi pointing out that the decision was made to alter the wording of Article 14 of the chapter of special rights of Egyptians concerning the freedom of the press. He then proposed the following wording: “The press is free within the boundaries of the law, and press censorship is prohibited. Also, the warning of newspapers, and their suspension or closure, through administrative methods is prohibited.”
The 1923 constitution was replaced five years later by the 1930 constitution. But it was reinstated, following public pressure, in 1935 and remained in effect till 1952.

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