New York – Egyptian authorities are already holding a record number of journalists behind bars, and a draconian new anti-terror law signed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sunday will further broaden the crackdown on dissent, press freedom groups warn.
It imposes heavy penalties on journalists who publish “false news,” including fines of up to 64,000 dollars for stories that contradict official reports on terrorist attacks. Critics say this will create a chilling effect on independent reporting, particularly on smaller presses.
On Monday, Said Benarbia, Director of the International Commission of Jurists, Middle East and North Africa Programme, said, “The promulgation of the Counter-Terrorism Law by President el-Sisi expands the list of repressive laws and decrees that aim to stifle dissent and the exercise of fundamental freedoms.
“Egypt’s authorities must ensure the law is not used as a tool of repression and, to this end, comprehensively revise it so that it fully complies with international human rights law and standards,” he added.
Mahmoud Sultan, chief editor of the pro-Islamist newspaper Al-Misriyun, Tweeted that, “The anti-terrorism law signed by Sisi clearly tells journalists and the media and anyone with an opinion: Very dark days ahead.”
The ICJ said the law also gives state officials broad immunity from criminal responsibility for the use of force in the course of their duties, including the use of lethal force when it is not strictly necessary to protect lives.
“[The new law] grants sweeping surveillance and detention powers to prosecutors, entrenches terrorism circuits within the court system (which have in the past frequently involved fair trial violations), and grants the President far-reaching, discretionary powers to ‘take the necessary measures’ to maintain public security, where there is a ‘danger of terrorist crimes.'”
Press freedom groups have strongly criticised the law since it first appeared in draft form, with an earlier incarnation (since softened, following international outcry) threatening to jail journalists who printed information that contradicted the official line.
In a letter to al-Sisi last month, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), noted that “your government arbitrarily imprisons journalists using national security and anti-terror laws. In a prison census conducted on June 1, CPJ found that Egypt was holding at least 18 journalists in jail in relation to their work, the highest since CPJ began keeping records.”
Most of the imprisoned journalists are accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt, he noted. At least five other journalists have been arrested since then.
According to Al Jazeera, financing “terrorist groups” will also carry a penalty of life in prison, which in Egypt is 25 years. Inciting violence, which includes “promoting ideas that call for violence”, brings between five and seven years in jail, as does creating or using websites that spread such ideas.