CAIRO: Violations to freedom of expression and labor rights are the subject of the latest two reports issued this week on the Egyptian government s compliance with its human rights treaty obligations.
The reports are being submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism whereby individual member states human rights records are examined periodically via contributions from various sources including a report from the government concerned as well as shadow reports submitted by NGOs.
Egypt s record is due for review in 2010.
In its report the Egyptian Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) said the government is failing to fulfill its labor right obligations. A joint report submitted by international human rights organization Article 19 and the Open Society Justice Initiative focused on freedom of expression and information.
The report expresses concern about the use of the criminal law to restrict freedom of expression, a highly restrictive system of media regulation and restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly.
The experiences of bloggers Karim Amer and Wael Abbas are described to illustrate how the criminal law is used to “unduly limit freedom of expression.
In February 2007 Amer received a four-year imprisonment sentence after being convicted of charges including defaming the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and inciting hatred of Islam.
Amer’s imprisonment for statements made online is the first time Egypt has jailed a blogger.
Abbas, who exposed several cases of police brutality on his blog was detained at Cairo Airport in June on his way back from a seminar in Sweden.
The report is highly critical of the imposition of criminal charges for defamation, which observers say is used to silence government critics.
“The imposition of criminal penalties for acts of defamation creates a chilling effect on expression and leads to self-censorship both by the media and by private individuals, the report reads. “Criminal defamation laws are unnecessary since civil defamation laws provide adequate protection for reputation, as evidenced by the increasing number of countries that have abolished criminal defamation rules.
The law also grants the Egyptian authorities “excessive powers to censor expression through the seizure of publications, Article 19 and the Open Society Justice Initiative say. They refer to the case of “Metro , a graphic novel all copies of which were removed from bookshops earlier this year. The author and publisher of “Metro are currently being tried on charges of indecency.
The media is subject to a range of laws and practices “which unduly limit freedom of expression , the report says.
Individuals risk being barred from practicing as journalists where they breach the Code of Honor established by the Higher Press Council – “a body subject to substantial government influence and whose head is the head of the Shoura Council (Egypt s upper house of parliament) .
Only corporations, rather than individuals, may create a newspaper – leading many newspapers to seek registration outside Egypt, often in Cyprus. Furthermore, the report says, “vague restrictions on what newspapers may publish may lead to imposition of penalties for breach of these rules.
In its recommendations Article 19 calls on the Egyptian authorities to “substantially amend the whole system of media regulation to bring it in line with international standards by removing requirements that the print media be subject to a system of licensing and giving the media the opportunity to establish a system of self-regulation.
In its report the Egyptian Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) finds that Egypt is failing to fulfill its labor right obligations by violating workers’ rights to freedom of association, making the possibility of meaningful worker-employer negotiations impossible, failing to put in place a minimum wage and not providing workers with protection under a social insurance system.
The inability of workers to freely form and join trade union organizations outside the framework of the state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions has had serious consequences for private sector workers, the report says.
Thousands of workers in the private sector are not unionized because no, or very few, “official EFTU unions exist and workers are prohibited from forming their own unions. CTUWS quote 2005 figures according to which there is one trade union committee for 270 companies in Borg El-Arab City.
The report notes serious violations during the last EFTU elections in 2006 when workers’ attempts to withdraw confidence from their unions were ignored.
Egypt’s real estate tax collectors, who succeeded in forming Egypt’s only independent trade union earlier this year, continue to face government harassment in the form of prosecution and intimidation, the report notes.
CTUWS note that despite the establishment of a Higher Council for Wages in 2003 to determine the minimum wage, the Council “has not to-date performed its task despite the urgent need to change the wage structure.
“Instead, the government changed wages in some categories when conditions become catastrophic. The government treated these situations with sedatives in order to reduce tension.
The report explains that wages in Egypt consist of a basic wage and variable pay made up of incentive and allowance payments.
“Workers are highly dependent on the variable pay which is not organized by any law . In the private sector this pay is completely subject to the will of the employer. It has been subject to continuous reductions during recent years because of unemployment and absence of union protections.
Changes in Egypt’s economy have also seriously impacted workers ability to seek social security protection because, the report notes, Egypt’s social security network was previously closely linked to the public sector.
“Thus, the collapse of the public sector has resulted in the collapse of the various forms of social support and services. More than 50 percent of the labor force is outside the state health insurance system.