CAIRO: Egyptian rights groups collectively condemned a draft law on audio-visual transmission which lays down prison sentences for broadcasters and ordinary media-users that violate its provisions.
Fourteen Egyptian NGOs issued on Tuesday a statement calling on the government to open up a public debate on the proposed legislation and consult civil society and experts on the draft law which they say “will place Egypt at the top of the list of states which shackle the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The draft law was revealed last week in Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, which was attacked by Osama Saraya, editor of state-run daily Al-Ahram, who said the independent newspaper was only out to cause “unnecessary commotion.
Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Saraya, in an Al Jazeera interview, said that in publishing the draft law, the newspaper sought to sensationalize the story.
Saraya claimed during the interview that the law will be a “positive step to strengthen the media.
Meanwhile, cabinet spokesman Magdy Radi has “denied the existence of such a law, according to a position paper issued by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
“The spokesman’s denial of the censorship law was not paid much attention, either because journalists usually do not find the spokesman’s statements to be credible or because the existence of such a law in its complete form makes many people turn a deaf ear to such announcements, ANHRI said in a position paper issued on Monday.
The paper entitled “Anas El-Fiqi’s Law on Audio-Visual Transmission: Loyalty before Media Freedom places the draft law in the context of a clampdown on the Egyptian media.
Media freedom enjoyed a brief renaissance in 2005, the year President Hosni Mubarak pledged to end custodial sentences for journalists.
While the independent press, which has emerged more strongly in the last five years, has succeeded in pushing boundaries in an unprecedented way, Mubarak’s promise remains unfulfilled, and journalists continue to be the subject of what is widely regarded as politically-motivated criminal charges.
ANHRI suggests that El-Fiqi’s appointment to the post of Minister of Information in 2005 was necessary to “keep in check the media’s defiance and return it to the realm of silence and control.
The position paper alleges that El-Fiqi “was given broad powers and the right to cleanse his ministry of any elements merely for the suspicion that they sympathize with the pro-democracy movement and of members of the ‘old guard’ – supporters of [El-Fiqi’s predecessors] Safwat El-Sherif and Mamdouh El-Beltagui.
ANHRI refer to El-Fiqi as a member of a group of “new intellectuals and satirically praise his ability to “confront and cope with change by “harassing and restricting satellite stations and their employees such as Al Jazeera’s Howeida Taha and Hussein Abdel Ghany [both of which were subject to legal proceedings], the El-Hewar channel [whose transmission was stopped by the government-controlled Nilesat in April] . and the Cairo News Company [whose owner Nader Gohar is currently the subject of criminal proceedings].
Secretary General of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Hafez Abu Seada refers to the legislation as “a law to silence voices in a statement published Tuesday.
Abu Seada rejects claims that the law aims merely to regulate media activity.
“The truth is the exact opposite. Everyone in Egypt knows very well that freedom of opinion and expression is being targeted, whether in the press or on TV or even on internet blogs, said Abu Seada. “Evidence of this is provided by the huge number of cases brought against independent newspaper editors.”The government’s preservation of Penal Code articles which impose custodial sentences in publishing crimes, and the refusal of journalists’ demands for their abrogation are further evidence of this ill-will towards the press and journalists, he continued.
Abu Seada warns of the threat that the draft law poses to freedom of opinion and expression, pointing to the terms used to describe the duties of broadcasters in the draft’s second article.
“The article uses terms such as social peace, national unity and public order and morals – elastic terms which are used for the purpose of attacking and containing the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
ANHRI criticized the draft law’s requirement that broadcasters provide “sound information as well as obliging journalists to abide by the terms of the Arab Satellite Broadcasting Charter issued by the Arab League earlier this year, which is strongly opposed by critics who allege that its provisions are aimed at curbing free speech.
The position paper goes on to say that the imprisonment penalties laid down in the draft law spell the end of the “era of torture clips and corruption documentation videos – a reference to mobile phone videos posted on the Internet, which showed the abuse and torture of individuals at the hands of the Egyptian police.
A mobile phone video which a showed microbus driver being sodomized with a stick by police officers was directly responsible for the three-year prison sentence handed down to officer Islam Nabih in 2007.
Article 41 of the draft law, for example, provides for a one-month prison sentence for anyone who discloses data or information related to the National Authority, whose establishment is envisaged by the draft law.
The National Authority will be responsible for approving applications for broadcasting licenses, amongst other duties.
ANHRI described this provision as “Kafkaesque.
Abu Seada condemned the establishment of the National Authority, which he terms a “censorship body.
“The establishment of a body to censor means of transmission including the internet is wholly at odds with international human rights instruments and the Egyptian Constitution.
“I believe that this is a dangerous matter, and call on civil society institutions to show solidarity with journalists and broadcasters in order to confront this plan to silence voices.