The new interim cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, issued three bills during its first meeting on Sunday, the first of which cancelling prison sentences for “insulting the president.”
According to the cabinet’s bill, such defamation charges would be punishable only by a fine. When it passes, the bill would see the amendment of article 179 of the Penal Code.
Hassan Azhary, lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) described the bill as a positive move.
“We are against the trial of anyone for what is known as ‘insulting the president’ in the first place,” Azhary said. “We reject ‘speech trials’, which try people for anything they freely expressed, whether through speaking or writing.”
Azhary said these “speech trials” pose some of the greatest roadblocks standing in the way of journalists. He added that AFTE sees no need for punishing someone accused of insulting the president, neither by sending them to prison nor by fining them.
“If it is a must that insult be punishable by law, then the punishment of insulting the president should be the same, if not less severe, as that of insulting anyone else,” Azhary said. “The president accepted turning himself into a public figure and thus he should be tolerant to criticism.”
The second bill amended Law 97 (1996), adopting an amendment proposed by the Press Syndicate. The amendment gives the president the right to form a new Supreme Press Council made up of 15 members. The new council would replace the one formed by the now dissolved Shura Council in September 2012, comprising 50 members. The old council’s formation was highly criticized, with Abeer Saady, Press Syndicate board member, describing it as “flawed”.
The new Supreme Press Council would take on the jurisdictions of the Shura Council, those regarding its control over the council itself. Saady said the bill was suggested due to the dire need for a body that would manage the affairs of state-run press in the absence of the Shura Council. She added that the new council would be an interim one, its mandate elapsing by the end of the current transitional period.
“We are hoping that the new constitution would replace the Supreme Press Council with a National Press Council and a National Broadcast Council,” Saady said. She added that though the now stalled 2012 constitution issued the establishment of the National Press and Broadcast Councils, it failed to state that such councils must be independent from the state. “This means the councils would have been simply a reproduction of the Supreme Press Council.”
The third bill ordered the restructuring of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). In a statement released by the cabinet following its meeting, it said it will restructure the council due to the resignation of the council head Hossam El-Gheriany and due to “the special circumstances of a big number of its members.”
El-Gheriany resigned a day after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July. He said in his resignation letter that “the talk of human rights in Egypt is now a futile matter I would rather distance myself from.”
Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, council member and Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, is currently detained and accused of insulting the judiciary. Arrest warrants have been issued to other council members including Brotherhood leading figure Mohamed Al-Beltagy and Salafi preacher Safwat Hegazy for inciting violence.
The NCHR was formed by the Shura Council in September 2012, also stirring controversy upon its formation.
The three bills were referred to the State Council’s legislation section to properly draft them. Once they are drafted, they will be referred to the president to issue them.
The new cabinet was sworn in on Tuesday, a week following the appointment of El-Beblawi as prime minister.