CAIRO: A new Egyptian press law that allows judges to jail journalists for offences such as insulting public officials or heads of state violates international standards for press freedom, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday. The law, passed on Monday and billed as a reform measure by the government, eliminates imprisonment for some publishing offences such as libel but continues to let judges send journalists to jail in many cases. The U.S.-based rights watchdog welcomed a last-minute concession in the law that appeared aimed at easing journalists fears they could be jailed for reporting accusations of government corruption. But it said the law overall would still intimidate journalists. This new law basically tells Egyptian journalists that they risk jail if they are serious about covering foreign affairs or their own leaders, Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch s Middle East division, said in a statement. Criticizing public officials should not be a criminal offence at all, much less one punishable by prison terms. Egypt s opposition has said the law is another setback for Egyptian liberals and shows the insincerity of pledges by President Hosni Mubarak to allow more political freedom. Under pressure at the time to show evidence of political change, Mubarak promised two years ago to abolish custodial sentences for publishing offences. Some Egyptian media have celebrated as a victory the removal of a clause in the law that would have allowed jail terms for journalists who impugn the financial integrity of officials or state employees.
Parliament, at Mubarak s suggestion, ultimately removed a controversial clause that would have allowed jail terms for journalists who impugn the financial integrity of officials or state employees, parliamentary sources said.
The president responded positively to the representatives of the people and instructed the government to drop that article, Mufid Shihab, the government minister in charge of parliamentary affairs, said in a statement.
The amended law still retains articles allowing prison sentences for libeling the Egyptian president or foreign heads of state.
But it retained increases in the maximum fines that can be imposed on reporters for offences such as libel.
Human Rights Watch said the law still has numerous restrictions on press freedom that clearly violate international standards. The Egyptian government has tried to take back some of the freedoms it appeared to concede last year at the height of the U.S. campaign for democracy in the Middle East, such as the right to protest peacefully without police intervention. The press law was passed just two weeks after the government pushed through a similarly divisive judiciary law that opponents said did not guarantee that judges can be independent of the executive.
The last few years have seen the growth in Egypt of lively independent newspapers willing to challenge the rich and the powerful, right up to the presidency. The old state-owned newspapers are beginning to lose their readership. Egypt s independent and opposition newspapers did not publish on Sunday to protest at the law, and several hundred journalists and activists marched peacefully to try to stop the law passing. State-owned papers went to press as normal. This is a law for killing the press, journalist Mohamed Abdel Qudoos said over a loudhailer at Sunday s protest. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which holds nearly a fifth of the seats in a parliament dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, has also objected to the law. Agencies