Mouths wide shut: Publishing laws threaten journalists

Yasmine Fathi , Saturday 18 Dec 2010

Today, three Egyptian journalists were in court on alleged publishing crimes

Mouth wide
This morning, Amr Khafaga editor-in-chief of Al-Shorouk newspaper appeared alongside Hisham El-Meyani, one of his reporters in court. Their crime? Insulting Waleed El-Shafie, one of the judges who supervised the parliamentary elections in Badrasheen constituency. The court postponed their trial.
Also this morning, journalist and writer Hamdy Kandeel, attended the second hearing of the libel case brought against him. His crime? Insulting Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Abul Gheit. The ruling was postponed once again.

Watching this unfold, in his office in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, is Amr Selim, a cartoonist. Selim is wondering if he may be heading to the same court after a cartoon of his was the topic of discussion in the first session of Egypt’s new parliament Monday. The cartoon, which was published Sunday, had a picture of the parliament with its members depicted as cats and dogs.

“Yes I am worried,” admits Selim. “I am worried about my family and my career, but at the end of the day I want to do my job and do it properly, and I feel at peace because I know that I haven’t done anything wrong.”

The Egyptian legal system may hold a different opinion. For years, Egyptian journalists have faced hefty fines and prison sentences for things they have published. Despite the fact that freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution and that Egypt ratified several conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protect freedom of expression, many journalists feel they are far from free to express themselves.

Restrictions on the press in Egypt have a long history. In 1960, the first law to regulate the press after the 1952 revolution was passed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which passed all ownership of the media to the government. The law allowed the government to tighten its control with a monitor put in every newspaper to make sure that undesirable material was not published.

In recent years, the situation did not get any better. In 1995, the government caused an outcry among journalists and human rights activists after it passed Press Law No 93, which  journalists dubbed the “Press Assassination Law,” or “The Corruption Protection Law."

“They used it to punish libel crimes for 15 years,” remembers Hisham Kassem, magazine publisher and former publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. “And one journalist joked, well I might as well kill the person and just get another five years extra,” he laughs.

The outcry led to the establishment of Press Law 96 of 1996, which is currently in use. The law gave the state permission to impose limited control on the press in case of emergencies or in time of war for the purpose of public safety or national security. It also prescribes imprisonment for a year as a punishment for journalists who violate articles 20 and 21 of this law, which are "attacking the private life of citizens," "attacking religious faith," or "dealing with the conduct or function of a public person".

When journalists repeatedly called for the abolishment of prison sentences for publishing crimes, the law was amended in 2006 with clauses regarding the imprisonment of journalists removed. But fines were increased, sometimes reaching LE50,000 (almost $9000)

“You know for many journalists these numbers are terrifying,” says Ehab Salam, lawyer and human rights activist. “I think with current salaries, many journalists will beg the judge to put them in prison and not let them pay that amount of money.”

The problem also was the amendments protected journalists only in cases of libel, however all other publishing crimes that carried prison sentences were untouched. Also, what many journalists did not know is that Egypt has 32 remaining laws that include publishing crimes. The country’s penal code alone has 31 offences for which journalists can be jailed.

“So it became a game of cat and mouse between the government and journalists,” says Salam. “Now that libel cases did not hold prison sentences, if they wanted to throw a journalist in jail, they would just pick any other crime.”

These crimes include anything from insulting the president to insulting a public institution, such as the army, the police force, or the judiciary, having a negative impact on the country’s economy and publishing forged materials. Another problem, says Salam, is that many of these laws are filled with loosely worded terms that are open to interpretation. They act as a phantom to keep journalists in check, and to scare them when needed. Sometimes they are not used and sometimes they are, depending on how tolerant the government feels.

“So basically what we have is freedom based on the whim of the government,” says Gamal Fahmi, journalist and member of the Higher Council of the Journalists Syndicate. “If they feel tolerant they will give journalists freedom, and if they don’t, oh well, they will just open their drawer and pick whatever offense they feel like and throw the journalist in jail.”

Indeed, in 1998, Fahmi found himself sentenced to six months in jail for attacking the writer Tharwat Abaza.

“It broke my heart that I was jailed for exercising my right of freedom of expression. It made me feel tremendous sadness and pain,” he says.

Salam however, insists that journalists are at fault. They do not take the time to study publishing laws and sometimes run material that is libelous and cannot be backed up.

But the fact of the matter is, in a field like journalism, where deadlines are tight, competition is high and the search for that elusive “scoop” is never ending, journalists can never fully protect themselves.

One journalist who learned this the hard way is Allam Abdel Ghaffar, who works for El-Youm El-Sabea. Abdel Ghafffar had managed to get his hands on documents that proved that VACSERA, the Holding Company for Biological Companies & Vaccines (the only producer of vaccines in Egypt) had bought 30 million substandard Polio vaccine doses. He was given documents by two of employees in the company, substantiating the information.

It turned out, however, that the documents were forged and Abdel Ghaffar was accused of publishing forged material. On 21 October 2010, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His lawyer appealed and Allam spent one month in a state of terror before the charges were dropped. He managed to prove that he didn’t know that the documents were forged. The incident, however, had a lasting effect on Allam.

“There is no way in hell that anyone, not even a lawyer, would have known that these documents were forged, so how can a journalist figure it out?” asks Allam. “Would I have spent the best years of my life in jail because of this? As a journalist I need to feel somewhat protected.”

Journalists are calling for the abolition of imprisonment from all publishing crimes, not just libel.

“Journalists do need to be punished when they break the law or if they are unethical,” says Salam. “But journalists cannot live in fear of going to jail or paying a fine that will break their backs. We need to find a way that will bring justice but won’t scare them from writing again.”

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