Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A minefield for journalists

An item of concern to all those who care about the Egyptian Press. It has been submitted by Loveday. It is a piece she wrote for Middle East Economic Digest on 25th August and is important.


The People’s Assembly (parliament) approved the last of the new articles of the penal code governing the press on 10 July. The legislation places numerous restrictions on journalists, despite an intervention by the president to overturn the controversial article 303, which specifies prison sentences for journalists who question the financial integrity of officials and publicly elected figures.

The amendment followed a demonstration by some 500 journalists on 9 July, with more than 25 independent and opposition newspapers refusing to go to print in solidarity. Mubarak’s intervention was declared a triumph for the opposition but journalists say the changes do not go far enough. “The law still enables the government to gag the press,” said a spokesperson for the Egyptian National Union of Journalists.

There are concerns that the legislation, which retains the option of prison sentences for anyone who vilifies the president or foreign heads of state, will discourage journalists from reporting on foreign affairs altogether. The penalty for such a crime ranges between six months and five years in prison, or a fine ranging from £E 5,000-20,000 ($870-3,480) for the editor and £E 10,000-30,000 ($1,740-5,220) for the journalist. In a country where libel insurance has yet to catch on and journalism is not a particularly well-paid profession, the threat of fines will seriously discourage journalists from doing their job.

The government maintains that the law is a step towards a freer press. It removes some custodial sentences, and the government claims that the ones that remain work to discourage sloppy journalism. Although many agree there are some improvements, there are still a range of problems. Journalists may face a charge of “insulting the president” or “spreading false rumours”. In the ambiguous and loosely worded new laws, there are also no clear parameters for what constitutes “defamation”.

However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) asserts that the laws invite abuse and contravene international standards for freedom of expression. “These laws hang like a threat over journalists and foster self-censorship,” says HRW deputy director, Middle East and North Africa Joe Stork. The press law makes it illegal to even possess a picture or drawing that could “tarnish the image of Egypt”, a crime punishable with a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of £E 5,000-10,000 ($870-1,740). The mere possession of a picture of a policeman beating a demonstrator could become a criminal act.

On 26 June, Issa Ibrahim, editor-in-chief of the outspoken opposition paper Al-Dustour, and one of his journalists were sentenced to one year in prison following their coverage of a trial that accused President Mubarak of squandering public money. Article 48 of the constitution allows for the “supervision” of media and publications during a state of emergency and grants the government the right to confiscate publications and newspapers and shut them down. It also allows arrest and imprisonment without charge. “The Egyptian penal code is a minefield for journalists,” Ibrahim was quoted as saying in a recent HRW report. “If these provisions were evenly enforced, most of the journalists in the country would be in jail.”

It is not just the media that should be concerned about this new legislation. Stork warns of the repercussions for business: “Free expression is a pretty critical factor in dealing with corruption and transparency; this is an issue that anyone in the financial or commercial sector should be very worried about,” he says.

In the 2003 Annual Worldwide Freedom Press index, compiled by Reporters Sans Frontieres, Egypt ranked 110th out of the 166 countries studied. The list was drawn up by asking journalists, legal experts and researchers to answer questions on press freedom violations. By 2005, Egypt had slipped to 143rd out of 167. According to Egyptian commentator and journalist Adel Darwish: “It’s not so much a case of one step forward and two steps back, but one step forward and two to the side… The process of reform has frozen.”

After the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in last year’s elections, during which it gained almost 20 per cent of the seats, political analysts say the push for reform has slowed. On 30 April, the national emergency law was extended for a further two years, 25 years after the assassination attempt on President Sadat that put it into effect. “The government has painted a false picture to Egyptian liberals and to the West that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only alternative to the current regime, so people put up with it,” says Darwish. “Better the devil you know.”

For journalists, the fight is not yet over. “If the government is serious about reform, how can it possibly justify this muzzling of the country’s press?” asked Cairo’s independent Daily Star. “The press is what stands between the people and the abuse of power.”

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