Egypt parliament warns media against 'exceeding limits' of freedom of speech

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 18 Apr 2016

Egypt's parliamentary speaker has said local media outlets that ‎'insult' MPs could face legal challenges

Egyptian parliament (Reuters)
Egyptian parliament (Reuters)

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.‎

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