Egypt’s newly amended Press Law, which mandates prison sentences for insulting public officials in the media, still has numerous restrictions on press freedom that clearly violate international standards, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch welcomed President Hosni Mubarak’s intervention earlier today to strike a controversial amendment that would have made reporting on the financial dealings of public figures punishable by up to three years in prison. However, Human Rights Watch deplored the fact that provisions criminalizing insults to the president or a foreign head of state remain on the books.
“Criticizing public officials should not be a criminal offense at all, much less one punishable by prison terms,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “President Mubarak needs to make good on the promise he made two years ago to come up with a law that protects journalists from prison, even when they criticize public officials.”
Egypt’s National Assembly, dominated by President Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, on July 10 approved the last of the amendments to articles of the Penal Code governing the press. The previous day, 25 independent and opposition Egyptian newspapers did not publish editions to protest the amended law, and hundreds of journalists demonstrated outside the National Assembly. When he signed the amended law yesterday, Mubarak eliminated one of the amendments carrying jail terms, but left in place amendments that spelled out criminal penalties for criticizing the president or foreign leaders. In doing so, Mubarak failed to make good on his 2004 pledge that the government would amend the law to ensure that no journalists go to prison solely for their writings.
Formerly, article 181 of the Penal Code called for the detention of “whoever vilifies... the king or president of a foreign country,” but set no mandatory sentence. Under the proposed amendments, the penalty is fixed at between six months and five years in prison, or a fine of between 5,000-20,000 Egyptian pounds (U.S.$870-3,480) for the editor and 10,000-30,000 pounds (U.S.$1,740-5,220) for the journalist. Embassies may bring suits against Egyptian journalists by writing a letter to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which may then choose to assist them in bringing charges against the journalist.
“This new law basically tells Egyptian journalists that they risk jail if they are serious about covering foreign affairs or their own leaders,” Stork said.
Article 308 of the Penal Code, which imposes a minimum sentence of six months in prison on journalists whose articles “comprise an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals, or an outrage of the reputation of families,” remains in force.
Article 179, which calls for the detention of “whoever affronts the president of the republic,” also stays on the books, as does Article 102(bis), which allows for the detention of “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest.”
These vague and broadly worded provisions in Egypt’s Press Law invite abuse and contravene international standards of freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. Under international human rights law, political leaders and other public figures must tolerate public scrutiny of their conduct and limits on freedom of expression cannot be used to protect officials from public opinion or criticism. Laws setting out criminal penalties for alleged libel have a chilling effect on the press and stifle public debate.
On June 26, a court near Cairo sentenced Ibrahim `Issa, editor of the popular opposition weekly al-Dustur, and Sahar Zaki, a journalist for the paper, to one year in prison for “insulting the president” and “spreading false or tendentious rumors” in connection with an al-Dustur article reporting a lawsuit against President Mubarak and senior officials in the ruling National Democratic Party.
“The Egyptian Penal Code is a minefield for journalists,” `Issa told Human Rights Watch. “If these provisions were evenly enforced, most of the journalists in the country would be in jail.”