In democratic societies that value the right of the public to be informed, the use of media gags should be a justified exception, argues a recent study published by the local Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
“A media gag is an authorisation, not a right,” the study stated, explaining that exceptional measures are only the result of imposed circumstances, meaning that it should not develop into a regular practice against publishing, which is considered an original right.
Since a media gag is an exceptional situation through which the right to publish would be stopped, the research further established that there are damages caused by a media gag to those who have the right to publish.
AFTE’s report argued that there should be legal avenues through which media gag orders could be challenged or reversed, just as there are legal avenues that allow the state to penalise those who breach the gag order. However, the statement added, imprisonment should not be a viable punishment for breaching gag orders.
The core focus of the research is to prevent exceptional media gags from turning into restrictions on the right of freedom of speech and the right to know.
The research points out that Article 68 of the Egyptian Constitution stipulates that “information, data, statistics, and official documents are the property of the people and the disclosure thereof from their various sources is a right guaranteed by the state for all citizens, [and that] the state is committed to provide and make them available to citizens in a transparent manner.”
But the same article establishes that the “law shall regulate the rules for obtaining them and terms for their availability and confidentiality, the rules for their deposit and storage.” The research acknowledges circumstances where confidentiality should be upheld.
Those are related to judicial processes, including investigations conducted by prosecution authorities or even trials in their first stages.
Egypt applied media gags in several judicial cases, from which some were related to national security and others of public concern or controversy.
For instance, a media gag was imposed by the judge in the trial of 67 defendants in the case of the assassination of former general prosecutor Hisham Barakat, who was killed on 29 June 2015 in an explosion targeting his convoy.
Judge Hassan Farid, who is handling the case, said the reason behind the gag was to prevent influences on the judicial process.
He explained in a statement to Al-Wafd news website that he banned the publishing of suspects’ statements in the investigations, as well as the testimonies of National Security officers, but except such documents, he allowed journalists to cover the rest of the trial and the developments in each session.
Barakat himself imposed several media gags such as in the cases of a corruption case involving the head Port Said ports, the Qatar espionage case involving former president Mohamed Morsi, the assassination of senior National Security officer Mohamed Mabrouk, and the killing of former security chief Nabil Farrag in Kerdasa.
The media gags were lifted in some cases where details of the trials could be found in online media reports.
In one example, Barakat ordered a media gag in the case of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s killing. But the reasons he provided in a statement included criticism to media coverage.
The statement said that media outlets covered the case in a manner that falls outside of the realm of journalism through inaccurate and conflicting stories on the investigations, which could negatively impact the investigation’s process. Al-Sabbagh’s killing had caused public controversy over police violence.
Although the AFTE research supports the concept of the media gag, it notes that there need to be measures to control it, such as not allowing non-judicial entities to have the authority of gagging a topic, especially if other parties or sources of information are involved.
According to the Penal Code, breaching media gags during investigations or confidential trials is subject to a prison verdict of up to one year, in addition to a fine. It is also prohibited to publish investigations or court pleading in cases of divorce or adultery.
In the case of the Press Syndicate’s conflict with the Ministry of Interior, the imposition of a media gag was collectively rejected. Many news websites agreed to breach the gag and announced that through a black ribbon reading “no to media gags,” in the context of defending press freedom.