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Press freedom under scrutiny

Proposed law sets two years in prison penalty for publishing news that contradicts official statements on terrorist attacks

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry met Saturday with foreign correspondents based in Egypt to discuss what the Ministry feels is misguided coverage of the country and terror attacks. (Photo Foreign Ministry handout)
Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry met Saturday with foreign correspondents based in Egypt to discuss what the Ministry feels is misguided coverage of the country and terror attacks.
(Photo Foreign Ministry handout)

A proposed new anti-terrorism law includes an article that sets a minimum of two years imprisonment for publishing news or information on terrorist attacks that conflicts with official statements.

Following the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on Monday, Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim El-Heneidi proposed to the cabinet Wednesday several amendments to the new law, in terms of procedures and penalties.

The amendments include: decreasing the duration of trials related to terrorism charges; increasing privileges of police officers to arrest civilians on terror suspects; and allowing the prosecution to undertake surveillance on suspect individuals.

The amendments to the law draft were approved by the state council’s legislation department, and are awaiting President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s ratification.

Article 33 of the new law, of which details were revealed at the start of the week, states that violators “should be punished by a minimum sentence of two years in prison, whoever deliberately publishes untrue news or data about terrorist attacks conflicting with the official statements released by responsible bodies”.

A major conflict in figures and reporting on militant attacks against army checkpoints in North Sinai on Wednesday stirred strong reactions from state officials.

“This article is clearly violating Article 71 of the constitution that states: It is forbidden to issue a verdict of imprisonment for crimes regarding publishing information,” the Press Syndicate’s rapporteur of freedoms Khaled El-Balshy told Daily News Egypt Sunday.

El-Balshy strongly condemned the proposed article saying: “This is an attempt to put end to the profession of journalism.”

“The crisis is it not just violating constitution but this is setting a sole standard for truth that is official statements,” he said.

“This is a try to make use of bad conditions to hit the press,” El-Balshy added “We are always saying that countering terrorism shouldn’t be only a security counter, now they are countering terrorism through batting journalism.”

Al-Bedaya newspaper’s editor-in-chief added that the official spokesperson was also misleading.

“State officials also sometimes gave misleading information, as in what happened in the case of the Prosecutor General’s assassination, the Health Ministry spokesman was saying that he is fine and didn’t get to hospital, while the press break the news about his condition until his death,” he said.

“As for what happened in the coverage of Sinai attacks, newspapers corrected their numbers following the army spokesman’s statement,” he added.

Officials from the ministries of Justice and Transitional Justice were not available for comment.

El-Balshy revealed the official Press Syndicate reaction to the proposed law, telling Daily News Egypt that a statement will be released later on Sunday. An urgent meeting will be held on Monday to discuss the consequences of implementing the law.

“The way to counter press mistakes should be through corrections not jailing,” he added.

In a related development on Saturday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry met with Egypt-based foreign correspondents to discuss what the Ministry feels is misguided coverage of the country and terror attacks.

According to the ministry, in the lengthy discussion between Shoukry and correspondents, Shoukry reaffirmed President Al-Sisi’s statement that the size of the armed forces in Sinai is not more than 1% of its total capacity.

Shoukry also criticised what he saw as foreign media reporting “inaccurate figures and statistics on the victims of the recent events”, and using “wrong concepts and terms” to refer to what is happening in the peninsula. He suggested that some outlets have called attacks a “rebellion”.

During the meeting, correspondents were given guidance literature about the “true situation” in Egypt and how to appropriately term and understand terrorist groups.

One document suggests that it is wrong to refer to terrorist groups such as those operating in Sinai as “Islamists” or “jihadists”, as they carry “negative connotations… [that] tarnish the image of Islam”.

The Foreign Ministry instead suggests that groups like “State of Sinai” should be described using terms such as:  terrorists, extremists, criminals, savages, and murderers.

The documented was prepared by Dar Al-Ifta, the religious authority tasked with issuing Islamic religious edicts. It is part of a drive by Egyptian political and religious institutions to tackle what they call the abuse of Islam by extremist groups. The call has been led by President Al-Sisi as part of a “religious revolution” in Islam.

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