Egypt’s Press Syndicate praised in a Monday statement a new draft press law, saying it “honestly translates constitutional articles guaranteeing media freedom into real legislations”.
The new “unified press and media” law project was drafted by the governmental advisory committee for press and media legislations, which has former syndicate head Diaa Rashwan as secretary-general. The committee included 45 members representing different media fields, including press, broadcast and the printing business.
The Press Syndicate, headed by Yehia Qallash, said it will soon announce a copy of the law, which has seven chapters, in a press conference. During the press conference, he will call for open discussions on the law so it truly reflects the needs of the journalism and media community. The syndicate stated one of its most important achievements to be the cancellation of laws allowing the imprisonment of journalists in publishing crimes.
Earlier in a Sunday meeting, members of the syndicate’s councils condemned the ongoing campaign of journalists’ arrests, as the syndicate’s membership, a legal protection, does not prevent journalists from facing security harassment.
In the last few months, the syndicate has become more active in voicing its rejection of assaults on journalists, whether or not they are members of the Press Syndicate. Part of those efforts included a joint operation room with the Ministry of Interior to immediately follow up on arrested journalists.
However, this was maintained for a short while, after which security forces went back to dealing with journalists without coordination from the syndicate. In several instances, the Press Syndicate said it had not been notified of reporters’ arrests, and even demanded to know the whereabouts of Mohamed El-Battawy.
El-Battawy, who worked for state-owned newspaper Al-Akhbar, was arrested from his house on 17 June. His location was only revealed five days later, after Qallash filed a complaint to the Prosecutor General.
The syndicate’s statement added that journalists’ are facing deteriorated living conditions in detention places, namely Al-Aqrab prison. The Press Syndicate reported complaints made by the families of the detained regarding the absence of medical treatment and visits. The syndicate previously demanded all journalists “to be grouped into one place to make follow up on them an easier task”.
Under the new law, the syndicate says three articles forbid prison sentences for publishing crimes, in addition to removing at least 11 legal articles in other laws such as the Penal Code, which the syndicate said “include charges that are unique to the Egyptian law”.
“They include crimes that are vaguely defined such as 11 articles cancelled that are vague regarding freedom of expression, ‘indecency‘, ‘misguidance’, ‘insulting’, or content that reflects ‘hatred’ to regime.“
Nonetheless, “journalists’ imprisonment” is not going to be cancelled. The same law says that in “other crimes regulated by the Penal Code”, journalists could be subject to imprisonment. Examples of those crimes are racism, hate speech and incitement against people.
“Naturally this will create new dilemmas. Focusing on publishing crimes is one thing, but in implementation, there are going to be contradictions, depending on the charges faced by the journalist,” the syndicate’s legal representative Sayed Abu Zeid explained in Monday statements to Daily News Egypt.
Abu Zeid said that, for instance, the law criminalises verbal or physical assaults on public officials, as well as ‘insulting the judiciary’. A story critical of a judge would in that case fall under the latter, and not under publishing crimes, and as so, prison is the penalty.
According to the syndicate, the new law includes 13 articles providing press independence, free access to information and the privacy of a journalist’s sources. In the same way, however, this would not apply to military affairs, especially with controversial article 33 of the anti-terrorism law.
“The revision of press laws needs much more efforts, consultation with experts and careful examination of other laws, unrelated to the press, but include articles that apply to journalists,” Abu Zeid added.
Meanwhile, Fatma Serag, manager of the Association on Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), which has been taking many cases of arrested journalists, publishing crimes are not the only way to ‘capture’ journalists.
“We have seen many of them facing terrorism charges, so there should be a legislation tackling their rights in crimes other than publishing,” Serag told Daily News Egypt Tuesday.
However, Serag asserts that laws banning imprisonment in publishing crimes is still an extremely helpful step to the situation of journalists.
“The issue is not outdated, because until very recently two editors-in-chief of leading local newspapers were arrested and questioned on publishing crimes related to publishing false news,” Serag said.
Serag said that legal guarantees were needed to allow free information access, amid laws that she sees as an obstacle to press freedom like the anti-terrorism draft and a law aimed at fighting electronic crimes.
It also remains unclear whether the syndicate has any strategy to ensure laws would be reinforced once they are passed.