It’s a right that remains in short and notoriously irregular supply in Egypt. Yet freedom of expression continues to be in high demand. To that end, an amalgam of bloggers, journalists and activists attended a lecture yesterday evening at the Egyptian Journalist’s Syndicate hoping to find just how this elusive right can be attained and secured.
The lecture was given by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue. Much to the disappointment of the 40-50 attendees that showed up at various points throughout the two-hour event, La Rue’s central thesis was arguably underwhelming: freedom of expression is, indeed, important.
La Rue emphasized the crucial role played by the internet in propagating freedom of expression, but argued that equally important to advancing the technology behind the internet was making it accessible to more and more people.
“If Gutenberg’s printing press was invented and never used or only used by a small elite,” said La Rue, “it would not have been very useful.”
Speaking over the audiences’ ceaselessly ringing mobile phones, the Guatemalan national argued that freedom of expression was not an individual right but also a collective one to be shared by society.
He went on to highlight the two “phases” of this a right by noting that, “One the one hand, it’s about having the right to say what you want, but equally, it about having the right to access information, to access the arts and sciences, and daily news from varied sources, so that you can help form the opinions you want to express.”
He also emphasized that while religion should be respected, that respect should not be enforced by the state. “Instead that respect should be volunteered by members of society,” he said.
On the point of state enforcement, La Rue also argued that there is a serious world-wide threat of governments reverting to older laws relating to defamation, with new forms of crime being created that hinder freedom of expression.
“In Guatamala there is now a crime called ‘bank panic’,” he said. “For instance, if a blogger criticizes a bank and causes its customers to withdraw their money, he could be prosecuted.”
However, La Rue argued that it is exactly this kind of criticism that is needed in order to avoid the financial crises that arise from such institutions often being above reproach.
Moderating the event, Gamal Fahmy, Secretary of the Committee of Arabic Affairs at the Journalist’s Syndicate, subsequently elaborated that allegations of defamation were stifling press freedom in Egypt.
Smoking pipe at hand, Fahmy related the example of the government’s response to a past article in Al-Dostour that raised speculations about the President Mubarak’s health. The paper’s editors were prosecuted for spreading false rumours and negatively affecting Egypt’s Stock Exchange.
However, and with much amusement, Fahmy said that, “Actually, what really happened was that the stock exchange went up the following day.”
The event was concluded with a brief Q&A that was frustratingly hijacked by one attendee -- a former Dostour journalist who went on a 15 minute rant about the lack of freedom of expression in Egypt.
At one point, another highly irritated attendee cut him off, accusing him of impeding the freedom of expression of the others who want to ask questions. Unfortunately, this did not prove immediately effective in allowing others a platform to express their opinions.