Egypt is drafting a law tightening restrictions on media coverage of the armed forces, government and judicial sources said, alarming journalists who believe this move will sound the death knell for freedom of the press.
One source played down any threat to freedoms won after the 2011 overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, saying legislation under discussion would restrict only reporting that endangers “national security” as Egypt fights Islamist militants.
However, journalists and activists fear that if implemented, the law would end general coverage of the military which, as the main pillar of the Egyptian state, wields major political and economic influence.
A law in effect for decades already bans reporting on the military without permission, but a text of the new draft leaked to local media would increase curbs and penalties.
Before Mubarak’s fall, Egyptian media ran only official statements on the army, but after the uprising the ban was not fully enforced and criticism of the military became widespread.
The draft has not been officially released, but a text that appeared in the pro-government El-Watan newspaper last week suggests it will ban publication of “any news, information, statistics, statements or documents related to the armed forces, their formations, movements… operations or plans” without written permission from army general command.
Anyone who breaks the law would face up to five years in jail and a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,398 to $6,990.50), rising to prison without parole and a fine of 100,000-200,000 pounds ($13,981-27,962) in times of war or emergency rule.
That wording would cripple reporters in a country where the military has provided most presidents since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952. The army also controls businesses from bottled water to washing machine makers, and supervises infrastructure projects including an expansion of the Suez Canal.
The government has not publicly commented on the leaked draft but three sources said the law was being discussed by Egypt’s Council of State, a judicial body that advises the government and drafts legislation.
“I see the law as very bad and an assault on press freedom,” said Amer Tammam, a journalist at the state-owned Egyptian Al-Akhbar newspaper. “The defense ministry carries out economic projects… If I publish a report on corruption in any of these projects do I get jailed for five years? If I publish a report about a fight at a petrol station that belongs to the army do I also go to jail?”
The proposed law adds fire to the flame
A source said the changes had been prompted by violence in the Sinai Peninsula where the army is battling militants.
“First, it is a draft. It is still being discussed by the Council of State so no one knows what it will say,” said the source, declining to be named as he was not authorized to speak.
“But the aim is not to ban anyone from writing about the military in general. Nowhere in the world are journalists allowed to write about military movements or operations without checking that it does not undermine security or expose troops.”
Journalists worry that what harms “national security” is open to interpretation and the law will expose them to arrest and military trial if they misjudge the red lines. They say it gives the army scope to eliminate criticism.
“The draft law uses loose phrasing… and will… open the door to fear among journalists that they will be pursued by the military,” said another journalist, declining to be named.
The 2011 uprising led to the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi as president. Mursi was ousted last year by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after protests against Mursi’s rule. Sisi went on to win a presidential vote in May.
Since Sisi came to power, Egyptian media have largely reverted to the self-censorship they practiced before 2011.
After an attack that killed 33 security personnel in Sinai last month, Egyptian newspaper editors issued a statement promising not to publish reports that would undermine the army.
On Wednesday, seven Egyptian non-governmental organizations announced that they would not participate in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, which all 193 UN countries must undergo every four years, saying they feared anyone who spoke against the Cairo authorities would face persecution back home.
Moreover, Cairo has set a November 10 deadline for all NGOs to register with the government, in a move activists warn will deal a death blow to the country’s civil society.
“Civil society is on the verge of disappearing,” warned Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch.
In late October, Sisi approved of a military decree, similar to martial law implemented at the time of ousted Mubarak, to expand military power under the pretext of “ensuring stability.”
Sisi’s critics are likely to see such a step as the latest move to clamp down on dissent by a government that also issued a strict new law curbing protests.
Ending martial law throughout the country, which gives the authorities wide-ranging policing powers, was one of the demands of the popular uprising.
As Sisi’s government continues to tighten its military grip on the country, the UN’s top human rights body took Egypt to task Wednesday for a litany of rights abuses, including its crackdown on supporters of ousted Mursi, journalists and activists.
The participant countries and rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, condemned Sisi’s government and urged the council to order an international probe into the crackdown, mass arrests and unfair trials.
(Reuters, AFP, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)