The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) issued Tuesday its annual report titled “More Than One Authority to Oppress” in which it monitored the situation of freedom of expression and speech in Egypt in 2016.
The report tackled the problems facing different types of freedom of expression within the legislative circumstances organising freedom of speech, information, academic work, and creativity.
Daily News Egypt further obtained experts’ observations on the same points.
Press and media freedom
Press and media freedom came on top of the problematic issues in Egypt, reaching new levels in 2016 with the assault on the Press Syndicate and the sentencing of its leaders to prison.
According to AFTE, “this might not be the worst year of violations against the press in numbers, but certainly a historical turning point.”
The case is still open before an appeals court—while, at the same time, the syndicate is hosting new elections for the position of head and board members.
This comes as AFTE traced 438 incidents of assault against press and media workers. Those varied between a judicial action taken against them, detention, physical assault, dismissal from work, censorship, security raids, closure, and travel bans.
As for entities responsible for the violations, they included security apparatuses with 191 incidents, newspapers and media entities with 17, judicial authorities with 69, the parliament with 30, and government officials with 35, with 86 incidents attributed to civilians and 8 to private security guards.
This comes as a new legal environment is being shaped for the press and media, which AFTE doesn’t see promising, given that a law was recently issued organising press and media institutions under national councils partly formed by the president and other state institutions, in comparison to lesser representation of members designated by the Press Syndicate.
AFTE argued that while the point of new legislations was to protect the independence of press and media, the laws that are actually issued push for more control.
Media expert Yasser Abdel Aziz told Daily News Egypt that, in general, the status of press freedom in Egypt isn’t well, despite the ambitions for openness and independence after the revolutions of 25 January and 30 June. “However, challenges of terrorism, economic crisis, and political and security pressure led to a retreat in reform plans,” he explained.
Abdel Aziz argued that the current constitution set the basics to build an independent media but that they are not effectively translated into legislations.
However, he stated that the new legislations, particularly the law organising media institutions and forming national press and media councils, pave the way for an improving environment.
“For the first time in a hundred years of broadcast, Egypt will have a media syndicate,” he said. Moreover, he argued that there was a variety of members forming the upcoming national press and media councils. “Some state institutions will appoint members, but also independent organisations—such as syndicates, the Supreme Council of Universities, and the State Council—will appoint members,” he said.
While Abdel Aziz admitted that new legislations might not completely eliminate suspicions of state control of the media, he claimed they provide a more independent atmosphere for the media and press.
“Because before the revolution, the media and press were controlled by the legislative and executive powers, including the former ruling National Democratic Party,” he stated.
Abdel Aziz further commented on the trial of the press syndicate leader and two of his deputies by saying that “the incidents that led to the trial were unfortunate and miscalculated on both sides,” referring to the syndicate and the Ministry of Interior.
To him, the ideal solution, on one hand, would be for the court to acquit the three of charges and for the state to acknowledge the special position of the syndicate, and for the syndicate to focus, on the other hand, on its professional and services roles rather than to be involved in politics.
Despite that he would not blame the judiciary in case of a verdict being issued, Abdel Aziz said the sentencing of the trio would negatively impact the image of Egypt worldwide, and that the executive power would have little gains in comparison to the damages.
Freedom of artwork creativity
AFTE argued that the “year 2016 was the harshest in ten years in terms of the number of violations committed against the freedom of artwork creativity.”
The NGO reported a total of 78 violations in 2016, compared to 46 in 2015 and 21 in 2014. The reasons were mainly related to censoring or banning artworks and restricting artists.
Besides the three taboos of politics, religion, and sexuality, AFTE reported that artwork is also being banned on grounds of breaching public morale, stating the example of the recently released novelist Ahmed Nagy, whose novel was judged “publicly immoral” because of writing about “drugs, sex, and offensive words.”
Political satire art is generally oppressed such as in the case of “Street Children”, a musical band whose members were imprisoned over a video mocking the controversial Red Sea islands’ maritime deal, and the arrest of the administrator of the satirical Facebook page titled “Translated.”
This comes as Magdy El-Afifi, writer and former editor-in-chief of Akhbar El-Adab, a literary publication where Nagy’s chapter was published, provided a different approach to evaluating the status of freedom of creativity.
In comments to Daily News Egypt, El-Afifi first pointed out his rejection of restrictions on creative artwork, saying that “a society that doesn’t breathe creativity is like a patient in an ER unit at a hospital.”
“A real creator is one who clashes with society; writers and intellectuals are always ahead of society in their visions, and without them it’s just a silent society,” El-Afifi said, explaining that “real creativity is that reaching to humans before authorities.”
El-Afifi discussed the three traditional taboos, assuring that real creators are those who can break taboos. According to him, religion is supposed to be a positive factor helping society move forward; and even in current unfortunate times where those who claim to represent religion are fostering negative images, it is not among artwork creativity to insult divinity and prophets.
As for the taboo of sexuality, El-Afifi highlighted that the topic itself is the essence of humanity. “Great writers like Ihsan Abdel Qouddous, Youssef Edris, Naguib Mahfouz, and Nizar Kabbani tackled the topic but from a humanistic approach that went beyond sensuality,” El-Afifi said.
On the other hand, he opposed the “grotesque” depiction of sexual scenes in written and visual artwork—which would have been accepted in the past—because they would never be accepted in today’s society.
As for the political taboo, El-Afifi argued that intellectuals should rather tackle ideologies instead of wasting time and energy on the politics of daily life, which eventually die, while their artwork will remain.
He concluded that the evaluation of artwork creativity in Egypt should be based on actual art and creative work, by looking at the great intellectuals and artists rather than work aimed at commercialising these concepts.
Meanwhile, AFTE highlighted that the new VAT law has affected the costs of TV, cinema, broadcasting, and theatre production. This is in addition to an increase decided by the Supreme Antiquities Council to increase fees for filming in historical and monumental places.
As for the entities responsible for the violations, AFTE listed monitoring bodies, security and military institutions, religious institutions, judicial bodies, professional syndicates and ministries, and governmental institutions.
Furthermore, AFTE criticised the pursuit of the syndicates of actors and musicians of the right to arrest members breaking the law in a legal case. “As so, syndicate officials have the right to search, arrest, receive complaints from citizens, file reports against artists, and refer them to prosecution authorities so that they can be penalised by jail and fines,” a statement read.
However, actor and senior member of the syndicate’s board of directors Sameh El-Sereity denied in statements to Daily News Egypt that this would be the point of having that legal authority.
“There are legal violations happening that cause damages to the syndicate’s members and public funds. The legal authority doesn’t make me arrest people but allows me to monitor violations which, if found, my job is to report it to the police who can take legal action,” El-Sereity said, giving as an example of violation the unlicensed media production companies or actors that are not licensed by the syndicate, as required by the law.
Legal environment for freedoms
In 2016, the parliament approved several legislations that were supposed to represent the needs of the transitional phase the country faced after the revolution. But according to AFTE, most laws were passed without social dialogue or the inclusion of different communities and social groups concerned with the topics, resulting in mounting criticism to the parliament.
Examples of law that was approved without these dialogues, was the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) Law related to civil society work, which legal experts and civil groups have criticised, urging that it includes an article restricting civil work and could completely eliminate it.
Moreover, in bills related to freedom of expression, AFTE noted that the parliament’s Legislative Committee issued contradicting bills and decisions. For instance, the committee approved a law submitted by memeber of parliament (MP) Alaa Abdel Moneim and 60 other MPs that required removing the region section from the national ID and all official papers, which was seen as a positive step against discrimination.
Meanwhile, the same committee rejected a draft law calling for the abolition of Article 98 from the penal code related to imprisonment in cases of contempt of religions, which have significantly increased in the past years.
AFTE further pointed out to laws restricting citizens’ freedoms in terms of pre-trial detention, arguing that “throughout the past years, the prosecution has been continuously using pre-trial detention in all types of crimes, especially after 30 June,” and that more forms of so-called precautionary measures are being implemented.
The NGO referred to a new amendment for law No. 145 of 2006, adding alternatives to pre-trial detention, such as releasing prisoners on precautionary conditions, which includes banning them from leaving home or the country or requiring them to check in at police stations at scheduled times, along with not visiting certain places in the country. The prosecution continued using the aforementioned punishments despite lawyers’ calls for other alternatives, such as medical reasons, AFTE stated.
On the other hand, experts and officials commented to Daily News Egypt on some of the above mentioned examples.
Regarding the parliament, member Ahmed Sherif, the deputy head of the Legislative Committee, denied to Daily News Egypt the claims of his committee passing any law without community dialogue, adding that they made community discussions for all the bills that required it. “Such claims would be only for the sake of media propaganda,” he said.
But MP Ihab Ramzy told Daily News Egypt that not all laws were properly open for social dialogue with concerned groups. “There should have been more inclusion of different groups for discussions, and the outcomes of such meetings with MPs should have also been published in the media to give more transparency to the public opinion,” Ramzy said.
He concluded saying that every MP should also be aware of the topic of a law, prior to his participation in the discussion, for the sake of issuing fruitful laws.
As for detentions and conditioned releases, former head deputy of State Council, Mahmoud Fahmy, told Daily News Egypt that renewal detention punishment in Egypt is regulated, and that the prosecutions are practicing in accordance to law.
Famhy explained that the aforementioned measures are required to prohibit any defendants from changing any legal document or commiting any illegal act, or cause any action that would hinder the justice work.
Major General Hamdy Bakhit told Daily News Egypt that this legal method is required to serve requirements of current security conditions in Egypt. “No one can deny the difficulty of security conditions in Egypt, and such claims are for shaping people’s opinions, as it neglects the state situation,” he added.
Freedom of information flow, academic work
AFTE’s report stated that there was a media blackout, non-transparency, and gags in certain issues in the country, such as the Red Sea islands issue and the dismissal and trial of former head of the Central Auditing Organization (CAO) Hisham Genena over corruption statements. The report depicted this situation as a violation of freedom and people’s rights to information.
According to Yasser Abdel Aziz, restrictions on circulation of information on sensitive issues could stem from the state’s concern of maintaining national security in face of terrorism challenges, where a balance of media is difficult to achieve.
On a different note, AFTE further mentioned some restrictions facing academics in their work as university professors and researchers, including the control of travel under the supervision of security authorities.
At the end of the report, AFTE advised against the control of social media channels as the latest means to restrict freedom of expression.