Egypt’s anti-terrorism law muzzles freedom of expression


“My life changed forever on the morning of Wednesday, 14 August, 2013. I was taking pictures of people protesting on the streets of Cairo when police came and locked-down the streets. Thousands of people were immediately arrested – not only Morsi supporters, but also dozens of people caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

These lines are taken from a letter sent to various media and human rights groups in April by Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, from his prison cell.

The story of the 27-year-old Egyptian photojournalist is not unique in Egypt: it is the story of many reporters who are increasingly targeted by the government because of their work and who are about to witness new gagging measures with the anti-terrorism law that entered into force on Monday.

The bill, which had already been approved in July by Egypt’s cabinet, was passed in reaction to the assassination of the public prosecutor Hisham Barakat and a series of deadly attacks in North Sinai, the government says.

But media professionals have expressed grave concern over what they see as further censorship in a country already dealing with a severe atmosphere of repression against anybody who criticises the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In June, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) revealed that at least 18 journalists were being held behind bars because of their reporting: the highest in Egypt since the CPJ started collecting such data in 1990.

“The threat of imprisonment in Egypt is part of an atmosphere in which authorities pressure media outlets to censor critical voices and issue gag orders on sensitive topics…The arrests of journalists in Egypt are often violent and involve beatings, abuse, and raids of their homes and confiscation of their property,” the CPJ writes.

The official journalists’ union, the Syndicate of Journalists, is especially worried about five articles in the law.

The most controversial of them, Article 33, planned to enforce a minimum of two years in prison for the publication of “false news or data” which contradicts official data on “terrorist operations”. But due to criticism from the union and human rights organisations, the cabinet scrapped the prison term and replaced it with a fine ranging from 200,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds (US$ 25,000-64,000).

But four other controversial articles are still in place. As a result, any “terrorist crime” committed in speech, writing or by any other means is punishable by a minimum of five years in prison.

All those who create or use a website to promote ideas or beliefs which support “terrorist acts”, mislead security authorities, affect “the course of justice” in a “terrorist crime” or exchange messages with or within “terrorist groups” will be punished by a minimum of five years in prison.

The legislation also bans photographing or recording court sessions in cases related to anti-terrorism without the court’s permission.

“Authorities want to control all the information and be the only source of news for Egyptians. This law is a step towards more censorship of the media,” Khaled El-Balshy, head of the freedoms’ committee at the Syndicate, told Equal Times.

“This law contradicts the constitution and the rights it grants,” he added, promising that his union will continue protesting the law and defending the journalists in prison.

“We are witnessing the worst era in regards to freedom of press.”

In an interview with the Sada El-Balad TV channel, Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said that the law “does not target journalism” and does not interfere with freedom of expression. It aims at stopping those who publish “false information” on the army.

Mahleb referred to the media coverage after the deadly attacks in North Sinai, which he said had “a negative impact on the morale of soldiers in critical times.”

He further stressed that the government respects the media, and that there is no intention to impose any censorship.

But the media is the not only sector worried about a law that is viewed by many organisations as a threat to human rights in general.

Last month, Amnesty International said in a statement that the law “must be scrapped immediately or fundamentally revised”.

“The proposed counter-terrorism law vastly expands the power of the Egyptian authorities and threatens the most fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. If approved, it is set to become yet another tool for the authorities to crush all forms of dissent,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.

Seventeen Egyptian rights groups also issued a joint statement condemning the law because “it sacrifices human rights and the rule of law on the altar of counter-terrorism.”