Egypt should repeal new anti-terrorism legislation punishing journalists whose coverage of militant attacks does not toe the government line, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today as it released a broad list of recommendations intended to reverse the continuing deterioration of press freedom in the country.
The recommendations, aimed both at Egypt’s government and at international organisations seeking to reverse the negative tide, are the result of a series of roundtable discussions held in Vienna, Doha and Geneva in 2014 that brought together journalists, academics, members of civil society and others to address challenges facing press freedom and media independence in Egypt.
“The current government, which has led a crackdown on opposition media outlets and imprisoned dozens of journalists on often-dubious accusations, has now granted itself a monopoly on information – a development wholly inconsistent with democracy in general and with guarantees set forth in Egypt’s Constitution,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said.
“The subject of militants’ attacks, and whether the government is giving people accurate information about them, is unquestionably of public interest. Rather than misusing the very real need to combat terrorism as a pretext to squelch questions about government conduct, the country should take concrete steps to shore up the rule of law and protect human rights.
“We urge Egypt’s leaders to heed these recommendations and the country’s supporters in the international community to press them to do so.”
Under the anti-terrorism package approved on Sunday by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, journalists whose reporting on militant attacks contradicts official government reports can face fines of approximately €23,100 to €57,800 and a ban on working for up to a year. A prior version threatened journalists with a two-year prison sentence, but that was dropped amid widespread criticism.
The Associated Press (AP) reported that the new legislation also defines terrorism broadly as any act that disturbs public order with force, and provides lengthy prison terms for promoting or encouraging any “terrorist offence”, among other activities.
Participants in the IPI roundtables, which were organised with support from the Al Jazeera Media Network, singled out such broad definitions for criticism. The recommendations released today call on Egypt both to tighten the definitions for “terrorism” or offering “support for terrorism”, and to repeal the new prohibition on reporting information that does not conform to government reports, among other steps.
The full text of the recommendations for international organisations and for the government appears below.
Egypt’s media enjoyed some improvements in press freedom following the 2011 revolution that ended then-President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, but those gains have mostly been rolled back in the two years since the military deposed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as of Aug. 12 some 22 journalists are currently imprisoned in Egypt in connection with their work. They include journalists detained in connection with the “Rabaa Operation Room” case, named in reference to a camp erected in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square protesting Morsi’s removal, which government forces cleared in a bloody August 2013 operation. In April of this year, a court sentenced one journalist in that case to death and another 13 journalists to life in prison.
Those detained also include photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, aka Shawkan, who has been held since August 2013 when he was arrested while covering the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square protests. Abou Zeid has alleged abuse at the hands of his jailers and is described as being in “failing health”.
The detained do not currently include former Al Jazeera English Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy, Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste or Al Jazeera producer Baher Mohamed, accused of terrorism-related charges in a case that has drawn international condemnation. The three were granted a retrial in January and released the following month, but are now awaiting a long-delayed verdict, which supporters now hope will come on Aug. 29. Greste was deported to Australia, but Fahmy and Mohamed remain in Egypt and could be returned to prison depending on the verdict.
CHALLENGES FACING PRESS FREEDOM & MEDIA INDEPENDENCE IN EGYPT
Recommendations for International Organisations and Egypt’s Government
The following recommendations for international organisations and for Egypt’s government are the result of roundtable discussions held in Vienna (Sept. 3, 2014), Doha (Nov. 2, 2014) and Geneva (Nov. 21, 2014). Facilitated by the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Al Jazeera Media Network, the discussions brought together journalists, academics, members of civil society and others to address challenges facing press freedom and media independence in Egypt.
Recommendations for International Organisations
1. When addressing the state of media freedom in Egypt, focus on freedom of expression and press freedom, rather than political and tactical disagreements that could be divisive.
2. Work to create and support international agreements and mechanisms to protect journalists’ safety and limit impunity for crimes against journalists.
3. Support independent journalism by working with journalists both within traditional media outlets and outside of them, by encouraging independent projects and by broadening the traditional definition of “journalist”. In this regard, consider broadly accepted definitions and other materials developed by UNESCO and the Council of Europe.
4. Strengthen the legal assistance available to journalists by offering training to attorneys, by supplying financial resources to provide journalists with legal counsel and by building a movement of international jurists to push for safeguards protecting judicial integrity.
5. Work to improve journalists’ knowledge of relevant local legal provisions, such as anti-terrorism laws and criminal defamation and insult laws, especially foreign reporters.
6. Pressure the Egyptian government to improve its policies by increasing participation in regional conferences on journalism and media freedom, by putting forth plans of action and by condemning harassment and attacks.
7. Diversify the campaign to include intellectuals and artists in Egypt, as well as stakeholders across the region.
8. Work to create international ethical standards and codes of conduct for journalists.
9. Hold journalists accountable for the veracity of their work by creating a culture of professional critique and by developing measures to encourage media institutions in Egypt to respect international standards of journalism, involving journalists’ unions in such an effort at the international and national level.
10. Encourage foreign embassies to hold events addressing specific media freedom issues and highlighting local legal provisions that can hinder journalists’ work.
11. Join in promotional efforts to raise awareness within Egypt that journalists – including those who share unpopular viewpoints – are not spies or terrorists, and focus on campaigns that include broadcast and online capabilities to achieve maximum exposure.
12. Support the creation of a national ombudsman – based in Cairo and subject to guarantees of independence from the government – to oversee and investigate complaints accusing media houses of alleged ethical violations.
13. Highlight court rulings with respect to freedom of expression, particularly those by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, an international court to which Egypt is attached based on its membership in the African Union and which in 2014 rejected the application of imprisonment in defamation cases. Egypt should also be urged to fully join the Court as a move to align its judiciary with regional and international standards.
14. Free expression and human rights organisations – particularly those outside of Egypt – should make clear the names and titles of officials who take actions against freedom of expression, so that they are subject to scrutiny and do not operate with anonymity.
Recommendations for Egypt’s Government
1. Promote respect for the guarantees of free expression and press freedom set forth in Arts. 70-72 of Egypt’s Constitution, and ensure that government officials and security officers understand and respect the media’s necessary role in a democratic state.
2. Provide members of the judiciary with training on upholding guarantees of human rights that Egypt has agreed to respect in both its Constitution and domestic laws, and in its international commitments, particularly Art. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Art. 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
3. Ensure that laws are applied uniformly and work to promote journalists’ knowledge of their legal rights.
4. Work to ensure that terms such as “terrorism” or offering “support for terrorism” are clearly and narrowly defined in law and are not misused.
5. Given the importance of independent public service broadcasting, take steps to transition the Egyptian Radio Television Union (ERTU) from a state broadcaster to a true public service broadcaster and ensure that safeguards are in place to ensure its editorial independence. As part of that effort, seek the assistance sector-specialised international unions, such as the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
6. Ensure that reports of crimes against journalists are thoroughly investigated – including allegations of crimes by government officials or security officers – and that those responsible for such crimes are held accountable. Further, actively take part in forthcoming U.N.-Inter-Agency Meetings in order to ensure that the recommendations of the U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity are fully implemented in Egypt.
7. Reform Egypt’s Penal Code to ensure that defamation provisions align with international norms so that public officials may not use such laws to punish journalists. Ensure that truth constitutes a defence to libel cases, that public figures are required to accept greater scrutiny than private figures, and that individuals are able to avail themselves of civil proceedings in lieu of criminal complaints. Further, eliminate the Penal Code’s arduous newspaper regulation section.
8. Rewrite laws regulating media licensing and public demonstrations that were in existence prior to 2011 to ensure that they comply with Egypt’s human rights commitments. IPI and numerous other free expression groups stand ready to assist in any review of such laws.
9. Insofar as countries with low levels of press freedom can face high levels of corruption among journalists, allow journalists to work independently and in accordance with a code of ethics developed within a self-regulatory framework.
10. Create an independent, national ombudsman position based in Cairo and subject to guarantees of independence from the government – similar to the model adopted in Ireland – to oversee and investigate complaints accusing media houses of alleged ethical violations. Further, provide that the ombudsman makes information regarding those investigations public via the production of regular reports on findings.
11. Fully join the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights as a move to align the country’s judiciary with regional and international standards.
12. Repeal recent anti-terrorism legislation that prohibits journalists from reporting on terrorist attacks in a way that contradicts official versions of events.