CAIRO: Rights groups and bloggers have condemned a court verdict which obligates the Telecommunications Ministry and the National Telecom Regulatory Authority to block “obscene websites.
Cairo’s Administrative Court issued its verdict Tuesday.
The case was brought by lawyer Nezar Ghorab who told AFP that the case “has nothing to do with personal freedom. If freedom harms others, it is no longer a freedom.
According to AFP, Ghorab cited the recent case of a couple imprisoned for setting up a swingers club online as highlighting “the dangers posed by such offensive websites.
In its ruling, the Administrative Court held that freedom of expression is limited by “society’s traditions and values.
“The [Egyptian] Constitution affirms the necessity of freedom of expression not being restricted to certain sources . other than the shackles and restrictions imposed by society’s traditions and values, the ruling reads, as quoted by state news agency MENA.
“Rights and freedoms are not absolute, but rather limited by the [need to] protect the pure essence of the family which in its turn is the basis of society, and whose constituent elements are religion, morals and patriotism.
“The state and society are obligated to safeguard the nation’s high level of religious upbringing, moral and patriotic values . as well as public morals.
According to MENA, the court found that obscene websites “spread depravity within Egyptian society via sound and vision, which destroys deeply-rooted religious beliefs, moral values and public morals.
The ruling has reignited the debate over state censorship and freedom of expression.
Egypt was recently placed amongst a Reporters Without Borders list of 12 countries which systematically repress internet users.
Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said that “closing a website is equal to closing a newspaper.
Both Eid and Emad Mubarak, director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, expressed concern that the authority to censor pornographic websites will be misused.
“We are opposed to internet censorship generally because of our deep concern that the Egyptian government will use this as a pretext to go after other sites, with the justification that their content infringes society s values and so on, Mubarak told Daily News Egypt.
Eid pointed out that medical websites, Islamic heritage sites which contain explicit poetry or literature websites which mock the government could all be held to be “against public morals .
Eid said that internet monitoring should take place via “an authority specialized in online publishing violations. This authority should send a list of sites that need to be blocked to a specialized judge who examines the websites himself and decides whether they should be blocked or not.
Mostafa Hussein, blogging at moftasa.net is also concerned about the possible misuse of the ruling.
He equates the ruling with “legalizing the monitoring of people s thoughts , saying, “I am sure that inclusion of political thought considered by the government as astray is next [in line for censorship].
Hussein includes charts showing the volume of searches for “sex in both English and Arabic originating from Egypt between 2004 and 2009. Noticeable dips in the number of searches occur around Ramadan in each year.
Writer and journalist Ahmed Ramadan suggests that banning pornography websites is futile.
“Even if you stop the websites, you can never stop the [torrent website] Bearshare and the torrent downloading. You can t go to every computer and delete every video or picture. You can t stop young people from sharing this stuff on CDs and hard disks.
Blogger Shahinaz Abdel Salam called the ruling a “disaster .
“This ruling isn t about obscene websites, it s about freedom of expression, Abdel Salam told Daily News Egypt.
She contended that the expressions used in the ruling are “extremely elastic .
“Who will decide if a website violates morals or religion or heritage? And who says that the heritage of Egyptian values is something which should be preserved anyway? Abdel Salam continued.
Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan.