The cabinet discussed Article 33 of the controversial anti-terrorism law on Wednesday, after protests against it during the week by the Press Syndicate and the media community.
The latter argued that the law imposes exaggerated restrictions on press freedom.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb previously said that the cabinet had started conferring about the law on Tuesday. Article 33, which seeks to put journalists behind bars for publishing “contradicting information to official data”, has been widely rejected by both pro- and anti-state journalists and TV hosts.
According to sources from the Press Syndicate’s council, the Ministry of Justice was behind Article 33. In comments to Daily News Egypt on Tuesday, Press Syndicate head Yehia Qallash described it as “a forced article”.
The Press Syndicate objected to the fact that it had not been consulted during the drafting of the law, as the constitution stipulates. Furthermore, four other articles in the proposed law related to publishing are problematic.
Article 29 sets a sentence of between one to five years for “anybody who collects information on official authorities executing the current law without prerequisites, for the purpose of using it in threatening or plotting to harm them or their interest”.
“The term ‘prerequisite’ is too vague,” commented Khaled El-Balshy, head of the syndicate’s committee for rights and freedoms, in a Tuesday meeting with journalists. “Why does the law not directly state ‘collecting information for criminal purposes’? Data gathering is the core of our job as journalists”.
El-Balshy believes that, if it were not for the debate that erupted surrounding Article 33, as the most obvious problem, other flaws might have passed without notice and the law could have been issued as it was.
Article 26 bans incitement to violence through any communication means, including writing. In Article 27, the law focused on websites used for that purpose. Both crimes are punishable by a minimum sentence of five years in prison.
Moreover, the Press Syndicate also rejected Article 37, which forbids recording or taking pictures of a trial session in a terrorist case, or publishing it in the media. “The constitution stated that court sessions are public, unless the judge decided otherwise. This article makes the exception a general rule,” said El-Balshy.
Meanwhile, the Secretary-General of the Committee of Legislative Reform affiliated with the Ministry of Transitional Justice told CBC channel Tuesday that he had no doubt that journalists care for the country’s national security. He added that Article 33, which he explained includes all means of publication rather than just journalism, could be amended based on Press Syndicate’s proposals.
So far, only Diaa Rashwan, former Press Syndicate head and current president of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, has suggested an amendment to the existing text of Article 33.
His draft of the article stated that a minimum fine should be applied on journalists and publications that “intentionally publish fake news regarding terrorist attacks on the army and similar operations involving the military”.
“My purpose was to annul the concept of imprisonment,” Rashwan told Daily News Egypt Wednesday, adding that he wanted to have a written, explained and justified reason for rejecting the legal article.
However, Rashwan did not agree with the Press Syndicate’s rejection of the other article, as he believes only Article 33 is related to press freedom. He explained that Articles 26 and 27 regarding incitement of violence apply to all means of promotion of those ideas, and not necessarily to publishing through the press.
He referred to the criminal code’s definition, where an accomplice to the crime is subject to imprisonment, and the “inciter” is considered a participant. He thinks that if the prison punishment is cancelled for “using publishing as a means of incitement to violence”, then verbally motivating to kill could result in a stricter penalty than writing it.
“That means that if I provoke you to kill somebody by speaking to you I could get a worst sentence than if I publish an article about killing somebody,” Rashwan said.
As for Article 37 regarding courtrooms, Rashwan said that in 90% of countries worldwide, it is forbidden to take photos out of respect of the suspect’s human dignity, “which our constitution also values”.
He said there should be a differentiation between trials open to public attendance and those open to the press, citing the example of family courts where press coverage is not allowed.
Rashwan also referred to the Egyptian criminal code, along with Article 14 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt signed in 1967.
It states: “The press and the public may be excluded from all or part of a trial for reasons of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, or when the interest of the private lives of the parties so requires, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice.”