Do we need ten more years to liberate press and journalists in Egypt? “Position Paper”

In International Advocacy Program by

It seems that the press community and those concerned with the freedom of expression have to wait for 10 more years until the freedom of press and expression, and the right of citizens to a free media regain their status, apart from the pressures manifested in imprisonment and the huge constraints on the freedom of circulation of information, opinions and thoughts. Before 10 years or more, particularly since the promulgation of law number 93 of 1995, known in media circles as the “press assassination law”, the press community made an unprecedented uprising, and managed within a year of continuous struggle – in collaboration with human rights organizations – to annul the notorious law; thereby achieving a partial victory which hasn&#146t reached the level of fulfilling their requests represented in abolishing the prison sentences in publications offences , or giving absolute freedom to the issuance of newspapers, or in reviewing dozens of texts already existing in the legislation arsenal, the application of which included the criminalization of opinions, confiscation of the right to circulate the information, and the right of citizens to knowledge and access the truths.

Despite the fact that His Excellency the president made an undertaking to the journalists and their representing syndicate two years ago, precisely in February 2004, to take the necessary legitimate measures to abolish the prison sentences in publications offences; and despite the fact that there is much talk about the democratic reform at the official level, and the wide scale social movement the Egyptian arena has experienced throughout the last two years in an expression of its aspiration to freedom and comprehensive reform, it seems that the tyrant regime is not willing to give away the legal tools it uses in suppressing the freedoms; chief among which is the media related freedoms.

For two years, both the government and the parliament have procrastinated the translation of journalists&#146 aspirations and requests into a reality, and they overlooked the bill previously submitted by the syndicate of journalism to the parliament, almost four years ago. This situation obliged the journalists to escalate one more time their struggle through the syndicate of journalisms and private and partisan press institutions with a view to fulfilling the requirements of press freedom. This included open commotions at the headquarters of the syndicate of journalisms, protests in front of the People&#146s Assembly, 24 papers and magazines were not issued on the 9th of July in opposition to the bill introduced by the government on the amendment of some provisions of the Penalties Law regarding publication crimes in a manner not fulfilling the aspirations of the journalists represented in the abolishment of the punishment of imprisonment in these crimes; be them included in the Penalties Law or even the Press Organization Law or Publication Laws and other related laws. Such actions also came in protest to the government maneuver which depended on developing an additional crime; i.e. comprise an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals, for which the governmental project defined punishment of imprisonment and multiple fine. This is considered by the journalists as a disclosed tendency towards adding immunity to corruption and abuse of power, and this also disturbs the functioning of the press in disclosing and revealing all aspects of corruption and delinquency.

Despite the good interference by His Excellency the president in the last moment in the consideration of the Bill in the parliament; which eventually led to the abrogation of the punishment of imprisonment in this newly-defined crime; and restricting the punishment to a fine with its multiplied values; What the law adopted by the parliament concluded is but a new proof of the government&#146s disavowal from the rhetoric requirements of the reform, and a its tight hold of such legal system which allows it, when needed, to muzzle the press, the journalists, and the freedom of opinion, as well as suppressing the independent free media if it crossed the red lines, and if there has been a chance to attack the margin of freedom which has relatively broadened under the yoke of the reform pressures and the political social mobilization that the methods of manipulation and suppression failed to smother it again.
What positive aspects are we talking about?!

This conclusion does not deny the fact that there is some development in the legislation implying some positive aspects to make it acceptable by the press community and responding, even at a minimum scale, to its requirements, this included re-wording or deleting some to the vague loose expressions which are abundant in the Penalties Law Texts and which gave space for the criminalization of opinion and publication in the pretext of “favoring or promoting some crimes”, or social peace, or “disseminating misleading or provocative media items”, yet, remained some loose expressions which can be interpreted in manifold ways, for example: upsetting the common peace or “public ethics”, doing harm to the national unity, defaming the reputation of the country, or “highlighting improper phenomena”.

In fact, the new amendments to the Penalties Law resulted in the deletion of some legal texts limiting the freedom of expression and press; however, and most probably, such texts are already inactive.

For instance, the deletion of article 98(a) of the Penalties Law which imposes a punishment for opposing the basic principles of the socialist regime does not imply any evidence that there is a tendency to promote the freedom, taking into consideration that the Egyptian Regime has taken wide steps in embracing the free market system and the economic liberalism which keeps it totally away from any suspicion associates it to the socialism and its social and economic principles.

The deletion of article 195 from the Penalties Law which assumes that the editor in chief shall hold the criminal liability for what is published in the newspaper is nothing but “fooling us”, since this particular article has been legally and practically inactivated almost 10 years ago by virtue of the ruling of the High Constitutional Court which decided its non-constitutionality, thereby, and pursuant to the Egyptian legislation, such article is no longer effective since the issuance of such ruling. In this context, it may be well understood what the other amendment concluded to, I refer here to the amendment of article 178 (bis) which deemed the editors in chief and publishers are held responsible as main doers for what is being published in their newspapers, if such are in controversy to common ethics. It is noting-worthy here that the law recently adopted by the parliament has added article 200 (bis) to the Penalties Law as means of manipulating the said ruling of the Constitutional Court. By virtue of such new article, the editor in chief or whosoever acts on his behalf may be punished for what is being published in the newspaper, if it is proven that the publication has taken place under his knowledge, or due to his insufficient discharge of the supervision duties; thus the editors in chief are obliged to interfere in the editing and assume the supervisory role on the items to be published in the fear of being subjected to the penalties imposed by the law.

We may say that the new law has implied an important step forward by the deletion of articles 199 & 200 from the Penalties Law, which allows the suspension of newspapers in case they contravene with the provisions of the Law in relation to the prohibition of publication in some publication crimes which pursue the journalist. Yet, there are many other ways to suspend, inactivate or confiscate the newspapers provided by the Parties Law which allows suspending any partisan newspaper in the pretext of observing the common interest. Also the Law on Publications permits such as it grants broad authorities to the government to suspend the distribution of newspapers, either to maintain the public order or to address the yellow papers and tabloids, or the papers that touch on religions in a manner upsetting the common peace. This includes articles 9, 10, 21, 22, 26, 27 & 28 of the Law on Publications; thus gives the authorities the right to suspend, inactivate, seize and confiscate the papers and publications, in addition to the wide-scale powers in seizing, confiscating and stopping the newspapers and closing their related print houses.

Some may also see that the new Law took a step forward by deleting the third paragraph of article 124(a) of the Penalties Law which stipulated that the punishment of a journalist may reach the level of imprisonment if the said encouraged committing “the crime of strike”. Such article deemed that publishing news on such crime even if true is a means of encouragement or favoring for such. In reality, such article is supposed to be among the inactive ones, since the strike which was earlier deemed as absolute sin, has now become legitimate, at least theoretically, even if within harsh constraints imposed by the Unified Labor Law.

Among the positive aspects remains still the abrogation of the punishment of imprisonment in four articles only of the Penalties Law, along with multiplying the minimum and maximum limits of the fine determined for the crimes penalized by the four articles. Such are article 182 which charges an offence against dishonoring the accredited representatives of foreign countries to Egypt, and articles 185, 302 & 306 in relation to defamation, or libeling individuals and public clerks.

In return, this Law which was supposed to put an end to the punishment of imprisonment in publication offences has developed in turn an additional article (200 bis) which made such an obligatory punishment in case of issuing a newspaper or any publication in contradiction with the legally specified provisions, in addition to the exaggerated financial fine that can reach up to LE 30, 000; thus indicates that such punishment may apply to the NGOs publications and leaflets. Let alone the punishment of imprisonment which was intended to be imposed on the newly-defined crime on challenging the financial receivables of the public figures. His Excellency the president has played a crucial role in excluding such crime, however such challenge is still deemed an offense and penalized by huge financial fines reaching up to LE 30,000; thus constituting great harm to the financial and economic capacities of the press institutions if they had embarked on tackling issues of corruption and the financial behaviors of the public figures.

Imprisonment is a weapon against journalists and those concerned with opinions.

It&#146s unfortunate to say that the government and the parliament translated the requests of journalists and those concerned with opinion to abolish the punishment of imprisonment in practice by keeping this punishment as a weapon targeting the journalists, those concerned with opinion and political opposition. If there had been genuine political will to put an end to this punishment on real grounds, neither the government, nor the parliament would have ignored dozens of texts which establish such punishment, either in the Penalties Law per se, or in other laws related to crimes of opinion, press and publication.

In this respect, some of such texts are, inter alia:

a. in the Penalties Law, the punishment of imprisonment covers whosoever calls for “the alliance of the people&#146s labor force” or incites the resistance against the public authority or promotes such (article 98a, bis); as well as whosoever produced or possessed for the purpose of distribution any pictures that can defame the State reputation, either by contradicting the truth, by giving an incorrect description, or by highlighting improper phenomena (article 178 bis2); as well as whosoever incites the discrimination against a certain sect on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion, or faith, if such would upset the common peace (article 176); whosoever criticizes a king or a president of a foreign country (article 181); whosoever intentionally broadcasts abroad misleading news, statements, or rumors on the internal State affairs which would lead to weakening the confidence in the State&#146s financial credibility, respect or status (article 80); Whosoever promoted in words or in writing or any other means for the interest of associations, agencies, organizations or groups call for the non-enforcement of the provisions of the constitution or the law; or doing harm to the national unity (article 86 bis); whosoever misused the religion to promote for extreme ideas with a view to igniting sedition, disgrace or dishonor any of divine religions or any of the groups belonging thereto, or doing harm to the national unity; whosoever intentionally broadcasts false news or statements which would lead to upsetting the common peace, intimidate people, or doing harm to the public interest (article 102 bis); whosoever promotes doctrines aiming at changing by force, terrorism or any other illegitimate means the basic principles of the constitution or the main social systems (article 174); as well as whosoever incited the non-abidance by the laws (article 177), and whosoever dishonor the President of the Republic (article 179).

Noting worthy is that what those articles have in common is how easy they can be employed in penalizing and torturing political and rights-based activists who aspire for a comprehensive democratic reform supposed to have genuine guarantees for a serious dialogue on the regime, as well as on the legal and constitutional reforms. In addition to the fact that some of these articles aime at immunizing the regime and its symbols against any criticism to its practices in the field of human rights, or the practices which disclose aspects of exploitation, influence or corruption and which are easily interpreted by the authorities as defaming the State&#146s reputation, or doing harm to the national interests…etc.

b. in the Law on Publications: includes articles 26, 27 &29 which permit imposing the punishment of imprisonment on those who do not abide by its provisions, be them publishers, editors in chief, distributors, or others. By virtue of such texts, the punishment of imprisonment can apply to those in charge of issuing a newspaper, if the conditions provided for by the Law are not fulfilled, with regards to hiring an editor in chief or editors to be in charge of the different divisions of the newspaper, or in case those don&#146t submit the statements required by the law with respect to the issuance of any newspaper, or any change thereon. By virtue of such articles, the punishment of imprisonment can apply to not only the editors in chief, the editors in charge, and the owner of the paper, but also to the printer, and the publisher too in case the ban on the introduction, circulation, and publication of some publications and newspapers is not observed.

c. the Press Organizing Law: by virtue of such law, the punishment of imprisonment still constitutes a threat to the journalist in case he/she promotes calls which constitutes disgrace and hatred of religions; challenges the faith of others; or promotes prejudice against or disdain of any group of society (article 20); or in case the journalist touches on the private life of individuals, those who work in public institutions, the person who has the parliamentarian status, or the person serving a public duty until and unless it is closely related to the functions those persons are discharging, and with a view to achieving the public interest (article 21). Also article 28 of the same law stipulates that the punishment of imprisonment may be applicable to whosoever declines from publishing the correction according to the dates specified by the Law.

CONCLUSION

The amendments to the Penalties Law in relation to the crimes of press and publishing are rather disappointing, and in practice, they only turn around the legitimate claims to abolish the prison sentences in publications offences. The aspiration for a free press and independent media is confined by a stringent legal structure which does not relate only to the punishments of imprisonment, and charging an offense for words, acts, and opinions that are in the heart of the freedom of opinion and expression, but its impact also includes the big constraints on having access to, circulating and publishing information. This is incorporated in many laws which entrench the confidentiality of information and imposes punishments in cases of disclosing or publishing such. These laws include for example the Law on Saving State Documents, Law on Civil Workers, Law on Embargoing the News of the Army and Martial Rulings, the Law on Intelligence, as well as many texts of the Penalties Law relevant to the circulation of information.

Moreover, there are the strict constraints on the right of individuals to issue and own newspapers, and the authoritarian constraints in general when it comes to licensing newspapers, in lieu of adopting the principle of risks. Besides, the government still monopolizes the hegemonizes the audio-visual mass media, and the national newspapers, as well as the pressures posed by the Supreme Council for Journalism with its quasi-governmental structure in influencing press institutions in general.

Therefore, the agenda of liberation of the press, journalists, and those working in media, publication and opinion is heavy and loaded with concerns and challenges to face the authoritarian elite which proves day after day that it is not willing to voluntary give away its legal tools that establishes its tyranny, and legitimizes the suppression of opponents and freedom seekers.

The challenge is still ahead of the press community and all the civil and political powers seeking the freedom to get involved in long term struggle for a comprehensive democratic reform, on top of its priorities, if not the key pillar, comes the freedom of opinion & expression and

*this paper is prepared by researcher Essam El-Din Mohamed Hassan

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