(New York) – The climate for free expression in Egypt has worsened since Hosni Mubarak was ousted a year ago, Human Rights Watch said today. Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) should act to end assaults on journalists by security forces. It should cease prosecutions based on laws violating media freedoms, and the country’s newly elected parliament should promptly repeal those laws.
In one recent example, a Cairo misdemeanor court on December 26, 2011, sentenced a democracy activist, Gaber Elsayed Gaber, toa year in prison for handing out leaflets at a public rally in Cairo. Security forces have engaged in brutal beatings and used excessive force against demonstrators in Cairo and tried to stop journalists from reporting on them. Actions like these were hallmarks of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, but they also have been used repeatedly in the year since the SCAF assumed control on February 11, 2011, Human Rights Watch said.
“The past year has seen a disturbing assault on free expression,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Not only are direct critics of the military under physical and legal threat, but so are those who deliver these critical voices to the public.”
Violations of the right to freedom of expression have included military trials of protesters and bloggers, interrogations of journalists and activists for criticizing the military, the suspension of new satellite television licenses, and the closure of an outlet of Al Jazeera television. In two high-profile cases, the telecommunications entrepreneur Naguib Sawiris and the veteran film comedian Adel Imam have faced charges of insulting religion under vague and arbitrary laws dating from the Mubarak administration.
Human Rights Watch has documented a number of assaults on journalists by security forces during demonstrations and destruction of news media property since the SCAF took power. These efforts to hinder broadcasts of demonstrations follow several months of efforts to curb activities of independent media outlets.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported 50 assaults on and detentions of journalists in November and December alone – actions that “are effectively censoring coverage of ongoing protests in Cairo.” Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 166th in its press freedom index in 2011, a steep decline from 127th in 2010, because “the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ... dashed the hopes of democrats by continuing the Mubarak dictatorship’s practices.”
State security forces have also used excessive and sometimes deadly force to break up a series of demonstrations and sit-ins in which people were trying to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly.
“The SCAF seems to be unjustly prosecuting journalists to obscure repeated brutality against the media by security forces,” Stork said.
The Mubarak government frequently used overly broad provisions in the penal code to crack down on criticism of the government’s human rights record or the political situation. In the past year, editors, opposition leaders, and activists have been tried in both military and civilian courts for “insulting the authorities or “insulting public institutions.”
Prosecutors have relied on existing vague and arbitrary laws still in force under SCAF rule to punish journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens who dare criticize the role of the military. In some cases, people have been prosecuted for making jokes. The new parliament should act decisively to eliminate laws which infringe upon the right to free speech, Human Rights Watch said.
“Sentencing Egyptians to jail for making jokes violates free speech and makes a mockery of justice,” said Stork. “These cases send a chilling message to critics of the military rulers and supporters of democratic reform that they cannot express themselves freely.”
Detentions, Beatings of Journalists and Broadcast Disruptions
Human Rights Watch interviewed three journalists who said they had been detained and beaten by security forces in November and December 2011 and one in February 2012. In all cases, they said, security officers knew their profession. In addition, two representatives of broadcast companies told Human Rights Watch that police and soldiers destroyed broadcast and photographic equipment, confiscated TV cameras filming from a private home, and threatened a camera crew for taking images of military officers beating male and female protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in December.
On February 4, Central Security Forces agents detained and beat Mostafa Alaa El Din, a reporter and photographer for RASD News Network, an online publication, El Din told Human Rights Watch. He said that the CSF police permitted him to cross their lines near the Interior Ministry during unrest to inquire after a colleague who had been detained earlier. He spoke to a major in the military and told him where he worked. The officer took his camera away and escorted him to El Din’s colleague Mohammed Gaudet.
When El Din tried to phone his superiors, the major took and broke his mobile phone and beat him and Gaudet with a teargas launcher, El Din said. Lower ranking police joined, striking El Din and Gaudet with sticks. They were set free after running a gauntlet of stick-wielding police in the street.
El Din asked for his camera back, but the police did not return it.
On December 17, military forces beat Hassan Shahine, an editor with the independent Al Badil newspaper, after he came to the aid of a woman stripped, beaten, and stomped on by uniformed men, Shahine told Human Rights Watch. He said that the uniformed men then attacked him with clubs, fists, and boots, even as he pleaded for them to stop, saying he was a journalist. He suffered bruises and abrasions to the body and face.
Foreign journalists were also assaulted. Security forces arrested Evan Hill, an online producer for Al Jazeera, on December 16 while he was covering unrest in central Cairo. They beat him and detained him for hours, he told Human Rights Watch.
“Soldiers & men in plain clothes beat me with batons, wooden sticks & once with a crowbar before I was taken inside,” he tweeted that day.
In a published account of his detention at the cabinet office building in Cairo by uniformed soldiers on December 17, 2011, Joseph Mayton, editor of the online newspaper Bikya Masr, wrote, “I was taken in a headlock, lifted off my feet and dragged into the courtyard area, where the grip on my neck increased. I was slapped in the face numerous times and hit on the back.” The soldiers deleted material from his computer and took a memory card from his camera before handing both back, he wrote. He was kept in custody for 10 hours.
Physical attacks were not limited to Cairo. Men in civilian clothing accompanying the policeattackedMohammed Said Shehata, a photojournalist for Akhbar Al Hayat newspaper, on November 19 as he was snapping shots – with police permission – of unrest near Central Security Forces headquarters in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, he told Human Rights Watch.
When Shehata started to photograph the beating of a young boy by plainclothes assailants, they turned on him and hustled him into the police station, where police repeatedly hit him and confiscated his camera. Shehata told Human Rights Watch that in December, the Alexandria branch of the Journalists Syndicate filed a complaint to the public prosecutor about his beating and beatings of three other reporters. As of February 1, he had heard nothing about an investigation or charges being brought.
During periods of unrest, security forces have raided premises to try to cut off broadcasts. On December 17, while a crew from the Cairo News Company (CBC) on the eighth floor of the Ismailia Hotel on Tahrir Square filmed a woman being beaten by security forces on the street below, a uniformed soldier on the street motioned to plainclothes bystanders, apparently telling them to go to the hotel and clear out journalists, said Nader Gohar, who owns CBC. The film crew fled their eighth floor outpost after hearing that the plainclothes men were on the way.
The plainclothes men burst through the eighth floor room where the crew had been working and tossed a camera, boxes of broadcast gear and cables, along with transmission equipment, over the balcony, hitting a sweet potato roaster on wheels and setting it on fire. The equipment losses totaled $120,000, Gohar told Human Rights Watch. Two days later, a military officer phoned Gohar and asked him to send someone to get a mobile phone and computer taken from the eighth floor room.
“They said army people don’t steal,” Gohar recalled.
Minutes after CBC+2 broadcast live images of police beating a prone protestor on Kasr al-Aini Street, a group of five men in civilian clothes entered the crews’ ninth floor quarters in another building on Tahrir Square, said Mohammed Hani, the managing director. The men told the crew to stop broadcasting or they would destroy the equipment. The crew stopped for two hours and then began to broadcast again. Hani told Human Rights Watch he did not know whether the men were police, soldiers, or civilians.
Around November 17, uniformed soldiers entered the apartment home of Pierre Sioufi, who is not a journalist, but where journalists using two cameras were photographing Tahrir Square. The soldiers first broke down a door leading to the rooftop and then asked Sioufi if there were any cameras in his apartment. Sioufi let one of the soldiers enter and he took away the journalists’ cameras, Sioufi told Human Rights Watch.
Curbing Activities of Independent Media Outlets
On September 9, then-Information Minister Osama Heikal announced that the government would grant no new satellite television broadcast licenses. Two days later, security forces raided the offices of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr in Cairo, suspending its operations. Mubasher maintains a bureau in Cairo but currently broadcasts from Qatar, the home base of its mother channel Al Jazeera.
On September 12, Heikal told the official Middle East News Agency that “it was unacceptable for channels to use equipment for real time coverage of events without receiving state permission,” and that Al Jazeera Mubasher had committed several violations.
Soldiers and police raided and shut down two television channels – TV25 and US government-funded Al Hurra – the night of October 9, as they broadcast a violent military assault on demonstrators protesting the burning of a Christian church in Upper Egypt.
Prosecutions for Exercising Right to Free Expression
On December 26, a Cairo district misdemeanor court sentenced Gaber Elsayed Gaber to one year in prison with labor for distributing, according to the court’s written decision, “publications that disturbed public security and drove a wedge between theEgyptian people and the Egyptian army and harmed the reputation of the Egyptian ruling military council.” A group of men in civilian clothes detained him at a pro-SCAF rally in the Abbassiya district of Cairo on December 23 and turned him over to police as he was distributing a pamphlet critical of SCAF and calling for the continuation of the Egyptian revolution, said the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, whose lawyers are defending him and appealing the verdict.
On January 25, the SCAF released Maikel Nabil, a blogger, from prison after almost 10 months of incarceration. A military court had sentenced him in April to three years in prison for “insulting the military establishment,” under article 184 of the penal code, and “spreading false information,” under article 102. In December, the military court reduced the sentence to two years. The SCAF pardoned him and more than 1,900 prisoners on the eve of the first anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising.
Nabil, in a video message after his release, rejected the notion that a pardon was adequate, given that he should not have been tried, convicted, and imprisoned in the first place.
“All charges against those implicated for expressing an opinion must be revoked,” he said at a news conference in Cairo on January 28.
On August 13, Asmaa Mahfouz, a former leading member of the anti-SCAF April 6 YouthMovement, received a summons to appear before the military prosecutor the next day for questioning. The military prosecutor questioned her for over three hours about her comments on Twitter and media interviews during protests on July 23 in which she criticized the military for failing to intervene to protect protesters.
On August 16, Egypt’s official news agency, MENA, quoted a military justice official saying the prosecutor had decided to refer Mahfouz’s case to court on charges of insulting the military, dropping the other charges. Mahfouz told Human Rights Watch that the charges against her were withdrawn on August 18.
Prosecutions Under Laws on Religious Expression
On February 1, a Cairo misdemeanor court sentenced Adel Imam, a well known veteran film and stage comedian, to three months in jail and a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($166) for contempt of religion in several movies he has made in recent years. In the films, among a wide variety of subjects, he satirizes pious people and Islamist terrorists. The judge did not make clear what law was violated; a full verdict was not shown to defense lawyers on the day of the ruling, Imam’s lawyer, Safwat Hussein, said he went to court the morning of February 2 to inquire, but the judge did not permit him to photocopy the case file.
Adel Imam told Human Rights Watch he knew nothing of the verdict until a note appeared in two Cairo newspapers the evening of February 1. Such suits had been filed against him during the Mubarak era, but none came to anything, he said.
Naguib Sawiris, a prominent businessman and founder of the secular liberal Free Egyptians Party, is on trial for contempt of religion under article 98(f) of the penal code, which punishes “whoever exploits religion in order to promote extremist ideologies by word of mouth or in any other manner, with a view to stirring up sedition, disparaging or contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity.” Last June, he tweeted cartoons of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in pious Islamic garb.
If found guilty, Sawiris can be punished “with imprisonment between six months and five years or by paying a fine of at least 500 Egyptian pounds.” The first hearing, scheduled for January 14, was postponed until February 11. Sawiris’ lawyer, Naguib Gobraiel, told Human Rights Watch he considers the charges an attack aimed both at Sawiris as a politician and as a Coptic Christian, a minority in Egypt.
“Muslim politicians consider him a strong political rival and think that if they get rid of him, they also get rid of the Copts,” he said.
Laws Inhibiting Free Speech
Egypt’s penal code includes numerous provisions that violate international law by providing criminal penalties of imprisonment for “insulting” public officials and institutions, including the president (article 179), public officials (article 185), “foreign kings or heads of state” (article 180), and foreign diplomats (article 182).
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the expert body that provides authoritative interpretations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egyptis a party, states in General Comment No. 34, on Article 19 on Freedom of Expression, that “States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”
By this standard, article 184 of the Egyptian penal code, which criminalizes “insulting the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council or any State Authority, or the Army or the Courts,” is incompatible with international law and should be amended accordingly, Human Rights Watch said.
General Comment No. 34 continues: “The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties, albeit public figures may also benefit from the provisions of the Covenant. Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
Laws that criminalize “contempt” of religion or religious groupings are incompatible with norms of freedom of expression, the Human Rights Committee said. General Comment No. 34 notes that it is impermissible for “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws…to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”