A proposed anti-terror law by Egypt’s government led by former Army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is causing widespread concern among the country’s media professionals. The law, which still requires parliamentary approval, calls for a host of new measures designed to help the government crack down on the rising terror threat in the country. Among the measures, which generally would grant police wider powers, is the ability to arrest and detain journalists who publish reports that contradict official statements.
The moves follow a series of deadly attacks in the country, most recently on Saturday, when the Italian consulate in Cairo was bombed. Al-Sisi has been fighting an Islamist insurgency ever since the army, backed by widespread popular protests, deposed the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of then-President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Morsi is currently in an Egyptian prison awaiting execution after receiving the death sentence for his involvement in a mass prison break during the 2011 revolution.
The government moves, however, have sparked protests from journalists and human rights activists who fear the draconian laws instead will be used to curb freedoms of speech and expression.
“We fear that the state’s strategy for countering violent extremism is only exacerbating it and relies on blocking legitimate outlets for the expression of opinion,” read a statement released Tuesday by 17 civil society groups. The joint communiqué condemned the draft law, calling it a “flagrant assault on the constitution.” The statement also warned that the proposed laws make “us fear for the collapse of the state itself as it sacrifices the constitution, well-established legal precepts and the esteemed Egyptian judicial system.”
The draft law was passed on the same day ISIS militants killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid — an attack that shocked even seasoned intelligence experts in the country — and after Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat was assassinated in Cairo.
There is particular concern over Article 33 of the draft law, which makes publishing news or information on attacks that contradict official statements punishable by a minimum of two years in prison. In an Orwellian turn of events, that would leave the government as the arbiters of absolute truth in the country and seemingly crush any notion of dissent overnight. There already was a crackdown in place against some members of the press.
In February, Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Grest, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed were released after spending more than 400 days in jail on what many believe were politically motivated, trumped-up charges of aiding terrorist actions and being associates of the Muslim Brotherhood. Grest was deported, while Fahmy and Mohamed remain awaiting a retrial.
“The law is a crackdown on press freedom, which we finally obtained and guaranteed in the constitution of 2014,” Egypt’s journalist syndicate said in a statement.