The anti-terrorism bill drafted by the Egyptian government under a non-elected parliament has triggered anger and fear among many Egyptian journalists, not least because they face extra constraints on their work in an already difficult working climate. Some, however, say the bill is needed given the extraordinary circumstances.

The anti-terrorism bill drafted by the Egyptian government under a non-elected parliament has triggered anger and fear among many Egyptian journalists, not least because they face extra constraints on their work in an already difficult working climate. Some, however, say the bill is needed given the extraordinary circumstances.

While the government has denied that the bill dents the freedom of media, unionists and advocates of press freedom stress that they support the state in its war on terrorism, but they do not tolerate extra restrictions on the press and delimitations to the right to access information.

Egypt was ranked just 158th out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

Controversy over the bill flared in mid July. Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab swore during the government’s weekly meeting on July 8 that the bill “does not target journalism,” according to Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.

Journalists locked up

“Mahlab says to journalists he will not imprison journalists while 64 journalists are already in prison,” Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, posted on Twitter. “Some journalists knew that quite well, but they believed him and thanked him with tearful eyes.”

Eid then posted a link to a list that includes 62 imprisoned journalists.

On July 8, Mahlab and a number of ministers met with members of the Council of the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists (ESJ) and some editors-in-chief to discuss journalists’ reservations about the bill. The government promised to study the reservations, pending ESJ suggestions.

The ESJ said in a statement that its council “will not object to a modern law that confront decisively and firmly a new wave of terrorism. However, the council, which Egyptian journalists have given the honour and responsibility of defending their interests and protecting the freedom and autonomy of the press, stresses that it will challenge decisively and firmly too any articles jeopardizing a freedom which many generations of journalists have struggled to get.”

The ESJ has objected to five articles: 26, 27, 29, 33 and 37. It suggests communication with other unions, political parties and civil society organizations to agree on a unified stance to face these articles which limit the freedom of the press and restore imprisonment sentences. The ESJ has described these articles as “dangerous” and “compromising the society’s right to know facts and the freedom of the press and media to access information from different sources.”

Infamous laws

The controversial articles include banning recording or videotaping the trials of terrorism cases (Article 37), the imprisonment of those who publish terrorism news different from official statements (Article 33), and banning collecting any information on law enforcers (Article 29).

Chairman of the Search and Documentation Unit at the Journalists Against Torture Observatory (JAT) Ayat Abdulhadi said the JAT from the very beginning rejected totally articles 26, 27, 29, 33 and 37 as they add more restrictions to the already limited freedom of the press.

The proposed law, a JAT’s statement said, adds to “a series of infamous laws issued under former President Hosni Mubarak to restrict journalism. Things, however, have changed since the 2014 Constitution which clearly provides for abolishing imprisonment sentences in publication cases and facilitating access to information. Nonetheless, the new bill re-sentences journalists to at least two years in prison for publishing materials on terrorism.”

Abdulhadi argues that no laws protect journalists from any attacks, whether by official or non-official entities, and even from people in the streets. During the first week of July, she says, 12 journalists were detained. Some of them have been released while four are still imprisoned.

Abdulhadi claims that JAT statistics show that 17 journalists are detained. Some of them are detained pending investigation, some have been referred to the criminal court, while others have already been sentenced. Moreover, there are a number of journalists who have been released.

E-media are targeted

Article 27 of the bill provides for severe imprisonment sentences against anyone who launches or uses a website to spread terrorist ideas or misguide security forces and also for those who attempt to access information illegally from governmental websites.

General Secretary of the Syndicate of Egyptian Electronic Journalists (SEEJ) Ahmad Abu Qassem says the SEEJ will challenge the constitutionality of the law if its controversial articles are not deleted or modified, stressing that e-journalists support the ESJ against these articles that harm the freedom of media.

He underlines that media in general and e-media in particular are targeted by the state, citing that Article 27 and measures taken by ministries and governors to ban dealing with the e-journalists who are not members of the ESJ which does not allow the admission of journalists who work at websites with no paper editions or not affiliated with recognized news agencies.

“Confiscating journalists’ right to access information and limiting it to governmental sources are totally unacceptable because the Executive is neither a guardian nor a monitor over journalism and media and will never be,” read a statement by the SEEJ.

Exaggerated claims

Some journalists support the bill and criticize the ESJ’s position. “Excuse me the Council of the Syndicate!” posted Mahassen Senussi, a member of the ESJ’s General Assembly, on her Facebook page. “We are with our country, so do not talk about neutrality.”

The security tightening, says Senussi, has been caused by a lack of professionalism by some journalists who neither verify news nor rely on reliable sources. The ESJ should have applied a scientific approach such as proposing modifications to the bill instead of causing media fuss. She believes that the prime minister’s meeting with the ESJ’s Council is a positive step to solve the problem.

“The United States and other countries have adopted anti-terrorism laws which have harmed journalists,” said journalist Mustafa Bakri in the Cairo Today Show on the Al-Youm Channel. “Most recently, Tunisia has declared a state of emergency so there is no need for exaggerated claims since the country is at war.”

Bakri says Article 33 does not breach the Constitution since it does not punish people for their viewpoints but rather targets those who publish false news on terrorism. He calls for supporting the Egyptian state: “I would be the first to go to prison if I exceeded the limits.”

Meanwhile, the findings of an opinion poll by the Igabat Institution for Marketing Research, Studies and Opinion Polls show that 83% of the Egyptians demand the quick enactment of an anti-terrorism law.