Egypt’s parliamentary speaker said Monday that parliament is ready to take legal action against television programmes that "direct criticism at MPs in a way which exceeds the limits of freedom of expression."
In an official statement, headed "Freedom of Expression Should Not Be Used to Justify Slandering and Insulting Institutions,” parliament warned MPs who write articles or accept to be guests on talk shows to be careful and not to let themselves tarnish the image of parliament.
The statement said that while articles 65 and 70 of the new constitution state that freedom of expression is guaranteed and that the freedom of establishing all forms of media outlets is allowed, parliament is also authorised to alert attention to the fact that "this freedom should not go to the extent of directing insults or slandering state institutions."
According to the statement, "there is a delicate difference between exercising freedom of expression as a constitutional right and insulting or defaming state institutions."
"The first is an allowed form of political criticism, while the second only aims at tarnishing the image of state institutions and disparaging them," the statement said.
The statement notes that a number of television programmes and public figures have recently directed insults to parliament and its MPs in a way that exceeds the limits of freedom of expression and leads to defaming them in the eyes of their constituents.
"We also note that some of these programmes adopt one point of view without presenting other different viewpoints," said the statement, warning that "the right of expression should not be used in an arbitrary way because directing insults to MPs is in fact means directing insults to citizens who elected these MPs."
The statement also indicated that parliament's new by-laws, which were signed into law by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on Sunday, state that in exercising their parliamentary duties MPs are urged to observe the dignity of state authorities inside or outside parliament "and those who fail to observe this right will be considered guilty of violating parliamentary rules."
The statement was released a few moments after parliament voted in its morning session on Monday to expel independent MP Samir Ghattas from the chamber.
Parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al accused Ghattas, a political researcher, of "violating parliamentary rules whether inside or outside parliament."
"This MP is fond of defaming parliament in every possible way and I urge all MPs who like to talk to TV programmes to be careful and read very well legal articles about the crime of slander," said Abdel-Al.
Ghattas tried to interrupt Abdel-Al, insisting that he was very well informed of all "the files" he discussed in TV programmes. Ghattas also refused to leave the chamber initially, until some MPs persuaded him to do so.
Upon the request of Abdel-Al, MPs voted in favour of expelling Ghattas and referring him to a special parliamentary investigation committee. The speaker said that "as the ethics committee has not yet been formed, Ghattas will be questioned by a special parliamentary committee."
Abdel-Al noted that state institutions, particularly the army, have been lately facing a hostile campaign. "This campaign began with directing insults to President El-Sisi, extending later to entail Egypt's national army which saved this country from chaos," he said.
He wondered how "a man who was prepared to sacrifice his life on 30 June could be insulted in this bad way."
Abdel-Al's words received enthusiastic and prolonged applause and a standing ovation from MPs.
In a sitting on Sunday afternoon, MPs also led a chorus of attacks against some local media outlets and social networks, accusing them of doing their best to “spread chaos” in Egypt.
In response, Abdel-Al threatened that parliament is ready to take all measures necessary against media outlets which were involved in defaming the country's legislative body.
In the words of Abdel-Al, "we respect freedom of speech, but this freedom should be responsible, and we reject defamation and are ready to invoke all necessary legal procedures in this respect."
Joining forces with the speaker, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi El-Agati said that “three new media laws” are being drafted by the justice ministry.
"Officials of the justice ministry are holding meetings on a daily basis to finish drafting three new laws on media and the press," said El-Agati.
The attacks were led by independent MP and high-profile journalist Mostafa Bakri who accused the government of standing "helpless" in the face of protests which were organised in downtown Cairo on Friday.
"This is not a strong government as it kept silent towards last Friday's protests," said Bakri.
Thousands of protesters had gathered outside the Journalists Syndicate to oppose a recent government deal that acknowledged Saudi sovereignty over two Red Sea islands. The deal is yet to be ratified by parliament.
Bakri wondered why "the government is still taking hesitant steps in the area of media laws."
"It just chose to keep silent towards the conspiracies led by different media outlets and by countries like Qatar and Turkey against Egypt and President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi himself," said Bakri.
Bakri urged the government to present all the new laws aimed at regulating the media. He also urged prosecution authorities not to release those arrested during the protest.
"They were using protests to incite the people against their government and they want us to be another Libya," said Bakri.
Bakri also attacked some TV channels and programmes for ridiculing MPs and portraying them as "idiots”, citing Abla Fahita, a puppet who gives folksy-yet-satirical commentary on life in Egypt during a weekly eponymous television show on CBC channel, as an example.
"Some have even gone so far to use Facebook to describe MPs who approve of the [Saudi-Egyptian] agreement as traitors," said Bakri.
Joining forces, Hatem Patshat, a leading MP affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party and a former intelligence officer, heaped praise on El-Sisi.
"He is a man who intervened in order not to allow Egypt to become another Yemen and Syria and fall into the hands of Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
He also urged the local media to improve their performance and to stand up to "the campaigns led by the Qatar-based channel of Al-Jazeera."
Independent MP Mohamed Akl said he is in favour of tightening laws aimed at controlling foreign-funded NGOs, and regulating the media and social networks.
"We also have a duty as MPs to warn citizens in our constituencies of the dangers of hostile media and campaigns aimed at spreading chaos in Egypt," said Akl.
In response, Minister El-Agati said that "the government has no control over Abla Fahita."
"I wonder what we can do against this Abla Fahita," he said, amid laughter from MPs.