In Egypt, a Fine for Journalists is Worse than a Prison Sentence

The outrage over the draft anti-terror law, particularly articles relating to access to information and freedom of the press, is unlikely to come an end soon. Journalist Syndicate board members expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s recent compromise regarding an article criminalizing the publication of information on terror attacks and counterterror operations that contradict official statements. The government’s suggestion—replacing a two year jail term with an extremely hefty fine ranging from EGP 200,000 ($25,000) to EGP 500,000 ($ 62,500)—was described by the syndicate as a farce. Journalists, they explained, would not be able to pay the fine, and as a result would still end up in jail.

After the assassination of late Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat on June 29, and coordinated attacks two days later by Sinai State militants in which twenty-one Armed Forces soldiers and officers were killed, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said laws should be amended to ensure swift justice. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab’s cabinet responded immediately with a sweeping draft anti-terror law that is still under review. The law aims at cutting short legal procedures in terror-related trials, provides legal protection for police and army personnel involved in combating terror, allows police to hold suspects without a warrant for 24 hours before notifying prosecutors, and grants the president the right to impose a curfew in troubled areas, without following the procedures stated in the Constitution. Given that Egypt has had no parliament for the past three years, the draft, when concluded by the cabinet, only needs to be ratified by the president before it is issued.

The introduction of Article 33 appears to be in direct response to reporting on the July 1 Sinai attacks. During the coordinated attacks on more than a dozen army check points, the official army spokesman was silent for hours. International news agencies and several pan-Arab television channels, such as Sky News Arabia, Al-Jazeera and Arabiya, were meanwhile reporting that up to seventy soldiers and officers were killed. Nearly twelve hours later, the army issued its first statement, saying only seventeen army personnel were killed, including thirteen soldiers and four officers. The second day, the army said another four bodies were found, bringing the total to twenty-one.

Sisi personally addressed the issue during a field visit to Sinai on July 3, saying that initial reports circulating on the number of victims by international media were part of an intentional plan to weaken the Egyptian armed forces’ morale. He was particularly critical of the local media for reporting the same figures, without waiting for the official army statement. In an Iftar meal he hosted on July 14 for families of officers and soldiers killed in the terror attacks, Sisi recalled the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel in 1968. “There were martyrs killed every day, but nobody knew about it, and that’s why the state was strong. Today, whenever anyone falls, all of Egypt knows about it. This is good, but it has a negative influence on Egyptians, and the morale of Egyptians will definitely be affected. We need to protect the state in this ongoing huge challenge,” he reportedly said.  

The first draft of the anti-terror law was widely criticized by legal experts, several political parties, the Journalists’ Syndicate, and many human rights organizations. The law, they said, violated many basic rights and protections guaranteed in the 2014 Constitution. The Journalists Syndicate submitted a memo to the cabinet, noting that Article 33 would bring an end to the profession of journalism as it is practiced all over the world. They said it would deprive reporters of the right to seek information from several sources to confirm the credibility of the story. The memo added there was no need for such new laws, considering that the same violations are punishable in the existing criminal law which bans the publication of false information related to army activities. “This law wants to turn all of us from journalists into postmen,” said Hanan Fikry, board member of the Journalists’ Syndicate. “By publishing official information only, which is not always accurate, we will lose our credibility and lag behind what is reported in all other media all over the world,” she added.

The syndicate also held a meeting with Mahlab, in which they underlined their opposition to Article 33, as well as three other articles that include sentences of up to five years imprisonment in the event of publication offenses in newspapers, online news websites, or even on social media. A fifth article opposed by the syndicate in the draft law bans journalists from filming trials in terror-related crimes, and imposes a penalty of EGP 10,000 ($1,250) for violators. This article likely in response to allegations by security officials that suspects charged with terror crimes use their trials to pass messages to their followers the outside.

The syndicate’s Secretary-General, Gamal Abdel Rehim, however, said that fighting terror should not be used as a pretext for violating basic rights and protections guaranteed in the Constitution. This includes the jailing of journalists for publication offenses due to the nature of their profession, he said. He added that in the event that the anti-terror law is approved, even with the two-year jail term replaced with a fine, the syndicate would contest its constitutionality before the Supreme Constitutional Court. He insisted, instead, that the article should be abolished. In fact, Abdel Rehim said the amendment to Article 33 proposed by the cabinet last week “was more dangerous than the jail term because no journalist in Egypt would be able to pay such an extremely huge fine. Thus, the journalist will go to jail, and many newspapers could close down.” He pointed out that in most publication offenses, cases are filed against the reporter, the editor-in-chief, and publisher or board chairman. “If the three were convicted, and each is fined EGP 500,000, that would be end of the newspaper they work for,” he said. The average salary of a starting journalist in Egypt is often as low as EGP 1,000 ($150), and is even lower for young journalists who work for news websites.

Khaled al-Balshi, a board member of the Journalists Syndicate, said that the government “should give up this old Mubarak-style of facing any problem with issuing tougher laws that imposes penalties over very general and unspecific charges.” Balshi was referring other articles opposed by the syndicate, which include a penalty of up to five years imprisonment for those who launch websites or use social media to “incite violence, terrify citizens, threaten social peace or provoke instability.”

Balshi claimed that the true intention of the new anti-terror law “was to silence any opposition. In its present form, the law mounts to a declaration of war against society, those who truly want to fight terror by publishing accurate information, and those who insist on their right to freedom and the necessity of respecting the Constitution, instead of arguing that it was too ambitious.” Balshi’s statement was in response to Sisi, who said, also during the July 14 Iftar, “The current Constitution is ambitious, and it will take time to implement it gradually. You should not seek perfection in everything.”  

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Journalists and members of the April 6 movement protest against the restriction of press freedom and demand the release of detained journalists in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo June 10, 2015. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)