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Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression releases annual report on freedoms in Egypt

Ahram Online , Wednesday 15 Feb 2017
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Under the title ‘Multiple Authorities for Oppression,’ the Egyptian Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) issued on Tuesday their annual report covering violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Egypt.

The report covered the legislative and legal climate in Egypt in 2016, which it said saw discussions in parliament that were against creative expression and the right to organise.

The report cited parliament’s rejection of a draft law banning imprisonment in publishing cases, while approving the controversial anti-protest law.

The report stated that parliament, which was formed in 2015 after a three-year parliamentary vacuum, was required to discuss all laws passed since the new constitution was drafted in January 2014. AFTE says that parliament approved all 340 laws passed in its absence with the exception of the civil service law, and that the laws were passed without serious or in-depth discussion and without community input.

Thousands have been arrested under the protest law – which bans protests organised without prior notification to authorities – and several people have been prosecuted for publishing-related offences, including writers Ahmed Naji and Fatma Naout and TV presenter Islam El-Beheiry.

On the legal level, the report states that prosecutors are referring cases to the courts without conducting adequate investigations.

The report also mentions the increased use of conditional release for defendants awaiting trial, which can involve travel bans, house arrest, regular check-ins at police stations, or being barred from going to certain places.

Defendants subjected to conditional release include 6 April Movement activists Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel and Zizo Abdo.

On the journalism and media level, the AFTE report cites the unprecedented police raid on the Journalists Syndicate headquarters in Cairo in May 2016, where police arrested two journalists for “inciting against the regime.”

Three syndicate leaders, including syndicate head Yehia Kalash, are facing criminal charges for harbouring the two journalists,a case many local and international rights watchdogs have called an attack on press freedom in Egypt.

Kalash is currently appealing a two-year sentence issued in November for harbouring the two journalists.

The report also cites the issuing of a controversial law regulating media and journalism, which mandates the creation of regulatory bodies headed by appointees put in place by the executive branch. The law also requires media outlets to function in accordance with “national security requirements,” which the AFTE report says is worded in a vague and restrictive manner.

AFTE documented 438 cases of what it described as violations against media and journalists, including obstructing journalists from doing their job, arrests and police detention, physical assaults, and the confiscating or breaking of journalists’ equipment.

The Egyptian government has repeatedly denied it imprisons journalists or reporters for doing their job, arguing that all those jailed have been charged with or convicted of criminal offences.

The report also said that 2016 saw 78 violations against of artists, including the arrest of members of the Atfal Shawarea band and a number of graffiti artists, as well as censoring or outright banning artworks for reasons related to religion, morality or politics.

Regarding freedom of information, the report noted the absence of any laws allowing citizens’ right to access information as guaranteed by the constitution. AFTE says that the government’s Red Sea border demarcation deal with Saudi Arabia shows that authorities consider a lack of transparency in foreign policy to be a necessity of national security.

The report also mentioned the imprisoning of the head of the Central Auditing Agency Hisham Geneina for “publishing false news” after he alleged massive losses in state funds due to corruption in state institutions.

The top auditor, who was sacked shortly after making his allegation and is currently out on bail and appealing a one-year prison sentence, says that his estimation of theft of state funds refers to the three years after 2012.

The AFTE says Geneina’s case shows that the executive branch fears showing public audit reports to the people.

Regarding economic reforms such as the floating of the local currency by the central bank in November, the AFTE report said that these policies are implemented without adequately stating reasons or conducting studies.

Regarding academic freedoms, the report states that there is increased restriction on academic content by university administrators, and that security officials are restricting work by foreign researchers and communication between Egyptian researchers and foreign universities.

The report also noted a lack of academic independence and guarantees of freedom of research and publishing.

Regarding internet freedom, the report says that the cyber crime draft law presented in parliament involves a limiting of digital rights, with harsh penalties that violate the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

The report documented 57 violations involving arrests for running social media pages and expressing opinions on social media; increased internet surveillance and the blocking of online applications and websites; and the hacking of the emails of activists and human rights defenders.

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