The elusive myth of press freedom

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

We re Egyptians, we like fairy tales. Aly Baba and the 40 Thieves, Joha, One ?Thousand and One Nights.

Oh, and the most modern of our fairy tales; the one about social and political reform.

Most Egyptians know that one; it s ongoing. If only Scheherazade d had access to that ?one, she d have been busy for a lot longer than the 1001 nights.

One of the world s oldest civilizations, Egypt s been through the gamut of social and ?political experiences. The democratic one, however, with its resident trappings of civil ?rights and political freedom, judicial independence and effective non-governmental ?institutions, is still eluding us.

When President Hosni Mubarak pushed through a referendum on an amendment to ?article 76 on multi-candidate presidential elections, people held their breath. While the ?referendum and the decision were slammed by various parties, there was no doubt that ?they led to a first in this country s history; multi-party presidential elections last ?September 7. There were drawbacks, of course. The other nine candidates were a ?motley crew, many of whom were known only to their closest friends. And there was ?never any doubt about the outcome. Mubarak swept to victory with the kind of ?majority that most presidents in democratic countries see only in their sweetest ?dreams. But the elections themselves were, by the account of non-partisan observers ??(many of whom would have been delighted to find irregularities) were clean. For a ?brief few weeks, Egyptians dared to hope. ?Of course, less than two months later, the parliamentary elections, drenched in ?violence and allegations of corruption and vote-rigging dashed those hopes. But at ?least we were back on familiar ground.

The problem with hopes of freedom or democracy is that they re like mosquitoes in ?summer, they just won t go away. No matter how much you swat, they continue to ?hum persistently in your ear.

The government s ears must be ringing. First it was the whole embarrassing debacle ?with the Judges Club, almost 2000 members are voicing that irritating notion that the ?judiciary should be independent. That s an ongoing saga, with two judges having been ?hauled in front of a court for voicing allegations of corruption, including vote-rigging, ?in the parliamentary elections. And a few days ago, the news came that that much-?hyped amendments to the Press Law had been rejected by the Journalists Syndicate.

Egypt is one of very few countries that allows for imprisonment over libels (most ?countries limit themselves with back-breaking fines). In Egypt, under the 1996 law, ?libel or defamation are punishable by a LE 1,000 to LE 5,000 fine, or a maximum of ?one year in prison.

If the subject of the libel is a public official, then the maximum penalty skyrockets to ?LE 5,000 to LE 20,000 fine and the prison sentence doubles, to two years. It doesn t ?take a political scientist to draw the conclusion that this might be detrimental to the ?ability of the press to hold public officials accountable. More disturbingly, there are ?no clear parameters as to what constitutes defamation.

On February 23rd, 2004 Mubarak stood up and said that was a sorry state of affairs, ?and that journalists should have protection, enabling them to do their jobs without fear ?of imprisonment.

Over two years later a draft of the new law has been presented by the government. It ?was hailed by senior National Democratic party (NDP) officials. Among them were Gamal ?Mubarak and Safwat El-Sherif to be the positive step toward reform and ensure a press ?victory.

The Journalists Syndicate failed to share their view. The law still stipulates a ?summary prison term of one to two years, but it s now a maximum LE 30,000 fine – or ?prison. Journalists may be protected from a prison sentence, under exceptional ?circumstances, the exceptional circumstances have not been defined. In fact, ?according to Sayyed Abuzeid, lawyer to the Journalists Syndicate, article 302 of the ?previous law, which allowed for the provision of absence of malice, has been revoked. ?Absence of malice is where a journalist says that they have no personal axe to grind, or ?in other words, it isn t personal – it s just business.

On average, journalism is not a particularly well-paid profession and few are going to ?be able to drag LE 30,000 out of their pockets. Their papers will be just as loath to do ?so and Egypt still hasn t caught onto libel insurance in a big way. And if one ignores ?crippling debt, one still has the threat of punishment hanging over one s head merely ?for doing one s job.

Reaction to the draft law has been intense: the Syndicate is frothing at the mouth. Seven independent papers are going on a one-day strike on Sunday July 9 to protest ?and even the state-owned papers can t help being appalled. ??”Down with journalism and long live corruption, wailed Ahmed Ragab in Al Ahram.

Mohamed Ali Ibrahim of Al-Gomhouriya was more tentative in his phrasing but ?dismally precise in the notion he presented. “The way in which new punishments have ?been sought makes journalists doubt the government s intentions.

It s delicately phrased, but it s a safe bet that most journalists already doubt the ?government s intentions.

It s uncertain what the government is worried about exactly. The average Egyptian has ?a weary, bone-deep conviction that corruption is a fact of life. They re unlikely to be ?shocked by anything they read in the paper. And if the government is serious about ?reform, how can it possibly justify this muzzling of the country s press? If you re ?studying journalism at university, you ll be taught that one of the functions of the ?press is its watch-dog function. The press is what stands between the people and the ?abuse of power. If the press cannot watch over public officials, then what is it ?supposed to warn the public about? Pickpockets and adulterers?

Editor of Al-Dustour Ibrahim Eissa this week received a one year sentence for running ?an article about a man who is suing the president and his family for abuse of national ?funds. Hardly surprisingly, the reporter who covered the story for the paper and the ?man who raised the suit have also been sentenced by the court. Eissa s conviction was ?for insulting the president and spreading rumors which threaten public security. He ?didn t accuse the president – he covered a lawsuit. In other words, he s been sentenced ?merely for reporting a fact. It s the most basic tenet of this profession. ?The whiplash will rake across more backs than Eissa s.

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