Egypt's cabinet on Wednesday agreed to amend a controversial article of a draft anti-terror law imposing jail terms on journalists who publish reports contradicting the governmment's official version of events in cases of terrorist attacks, a government spokesman said.
The draft legislation stirred strong criticism within the Journalists Syndicate and among media workers who claim the bill would curtail press freedoms. Article 33 had threatened a minimum two-year sentence as punishment for "reporting false information on terrorist attacks which contradict official statements.”
The cabinet on Wednesday agreed to scrap jail sentences under Article 33, but replaced them with hefty fines of between LE200,000 to LE500,000 (approximately $26,000 to $66,000), government spokesman Hossam Al-Qawish was quoted as saying by the MENA state news agency.
However, an official of the Freedoms Committee of the Journalists Syndicate, Khaled Al-Balshy, said the amendment introduced "tougher imprisonment" by levying a fine that would be beyond the means of most journalists.
The law "is not targeting terrorism but rather aims to target press freedom and muzzle opposition voices," Al-Balshy told Ahram Online.
He also denounced the government for ignoring propositions to revise other controversial parts of the bill which he said "inhibit general freedoms and tightens the authorities' grip on everything."
The law was approved by the cabinet after President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi pledged tougher legal measures to combat terrorism following the assassination of the country's top public prosecutor in a Cairo car bomb attack.
The controversial article is believed to have been triggered by media coverage of coordinated assaults days later by Islamic State militants in North Sinai which showed a large discrepancy between the official death toll of soldiers and that published by some local and foreign media outlets
The Journalists Syndicate had said the law includes other loosely defined articles that undermine press freedoms and enable authorities to censor the media.
These include items that impose jail terms for promoting "terrorist crimes" verbally or in writing or "broadcasting content that is misleading to authorities" or "disrupting the course of justice."
Another article bans recording or broadcasting court hearings without court sanction, something Gamal Abdel-Rehim, undersecretary at the Journalists Syndicate, says entails "dangerous restrictions on media and press operation."
The London-based rights group Amnesty International said the bill is a "strike at the very heart of basic freedoms" and said it must be scrapped.
"If approved, it is set to become yet another tool for the authorities to crush all forms of dissent," Amnesty International's Said Boumedouha said Wednesday.