Controversy continued to swirl around the expected anti-terrorism law approved by the government earlier this week regarding its contraction of freedoms, particularly relating to press and media freedom.
According to recent statements by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, the newly drafted anti-terrorism law, which is expected to be issued, does not interfere with media freedom. Instead, Mehleb said it is aimed at stopping those who publish “false information” regarding the army.
Mehleb, who spoke to Sada El-Balad TV channel on Monday evening, said: “The law came after indeed incorrect information was published about the military, which had a negative impact on the morale of soldiers in critical times.”
Mehleb criticised the conflicting numbers of death tolls reported by news outlets in the latest militant attacks in North Sinai. Some reports said up to 70 deaths had occurred amongst Egyptian military personnel, whilst the army had officially announced only 17 dead.
He added that “there is nothing but respect to journalists and media workers on behalf of the state” and that “all observations made on the law would be discussed”.
The comments came after the Press Syndicate strongly rejected Article 33 of the new law, which allows the imprisonment of journalists in case of publishing information contradicting the state’s figures.
“The law is a crackdown on press freedom, which we finally obtained and guaranteed in the constitution of 2014,” the syndicate said in a statement released Sunday.
It demanded that state officials reconsider the law, which they described as “dangerous, unconstitutional as it brings back journalists’ imprisonment”.
Another 17 local NGOs expressed solidarity with the Press Syndicate against “gagging voices and jailing journalists in an unconstitutional manner”. This included NGos most active in terms of civil rights, such as the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the El Nadeem Centre, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and others.
Meanwhile, Yehia Qallash, head of the Press Syndicate was discontented with the state’s approach towards the law, which he accused of “aiming to silence journalism,” saying the people concerned with the law – journalists – were not consulted in the process.
“On the other hand, all stakeholders from the state’s side whether the Ministers’ Cabinet, the State Council and the Judicial Council have had a say. We do not see any will from the state to negotiate or discuss our opinion on the matter,” Qallash told Daily News Egypt Tuesday.
Article 77 of the constitution states that syndicates’ opinions are taken into account regarding drafting of laws addressing these syndicates. Article 68 of the constitution also specifies that information, data, statistics and official records are a public property; their disclosure from various sources is every citizen’s right and is guaranteed by the state.
Moreover, it is forbidden to issue a verdict of imprisonment for crimes regarding publishing information, according to the constitution, considered a milestone in freedom guarantees by the journalism community.
According to NGOs, the new law imposes further restrictions as there is an article criminalising the provision of information to “terrorist groups”.
“Since terrorism is vaguely defined, this article could easily be applied to any report prepared by an NGO or media. For instance a report on economic and social circumstances,” NGOS argued in a Tuesday statement published by EIPR.
Other articles of the law were also picked upon by NGOs and the syndicate as they allow the government to close down websites “which promote terrorist ideology”. This was in addition to their creators being subject to a minimum of five years in prison.
One of the most controversial parts of the law according to the organisations is that “they are banned from acquiring information from different sources for evaluation and publishing, to be replaced by an unprecedented reinforcement of state-controlled media”.
The syndicate hopes to escalate the opposition against the passing of the law as it is. On Thursday, editors-in-chief will meet at the syndicate to discuss possible further pressure means against the law, which Qallash stressed it violated the constitution.
The syndicate was blamed for “standing in the way of counterterrorism”. For its part, the syndicate has repeatedly expressed its full support for the army in countering terrorism, also reminding in a Monday statement that “journalism in Egypt has a history in backing up state institutions”.
The new journalism crisis was the topic of debates during TV talk shows Monday night featuring guest representatives of the syndicate, legal experts and security specialists.
“The state must show good intention towards respecting the constitution,” Qallash said, after which he believes negotiations on the legal text could be possible. A member of the syndicate’s council also said that there will be discussions over proposing an alternative law to the government.