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New anti-terror law likely to muzzle media in Egypt

On Wednesday, Washington expressed concern about the law’s potential impact on human rights in Egypt

Rajia Aboulkheir

Published: Updated:

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi approved this week a law that sets harsh punishments for journalists who do not follow the government line, leaving mixed reactions over the future of press freedom in the country.

On Wednesday, Washington expressed concern about the law’s potential impact on human rights in Egypt, a military ally. For some, however, the law has been interpreted as a move to ensure media accuracy.

“From now on, journalists won’t take the initiative to publish any news in a hurry or that which contains any form of inaccuracy so they don’t fall under the parameters of the new law,” Safwat al-Allam, a professor of political media at Cairo University, told Al Arabiya News.

“Egyptian media will make sure to deal with any terror-related cases with the highest level of accuracy and prudence.”
The law imposes fines of 200,000 - 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($34,500 - $86,600) on journalists reporting information that contradicts official statements on militant attacks.

‘Very dark days’

Some Egyptian media figures slammed the law, fearing it would lead to greater censorship. Mahmoud Sultan, editor-in-chief of pro-Islamist newspaper Al-Misriyun, wrote that the law “clearly tells journalists and anyone with an opinion: Very dark days lay ahead.”

Ali Atef, a lawyer at the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, told Egypt’s Youm 7 that the law was “muzzling the media.”

Mounir Adeeb, a journalist and expert on Islamic movements, said such reactions “are reasonable given that the new law is likely to limit the freedom of expression of media outlets, particularly the ones linked with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

However, “having real censorship in the presence of modern technology… and social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter is very difficult,” Adeeb told Al Arabiya News.

“Security services can control print and broadcast media, but it’s almost impossible for them to be in control of all online media platforms in Egypt.”

Adeeb added that the law was “one step among many against terror,” but “won’t be enough to fight terrorism.”

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb tried to reassure Egyptians, saying the government respected the media and had no intention of imposing any censorship.

Speaking with privately-owned Sada el-Balad TV, Mehleb said the law simply aimed to stop those who publish “false information” on the army.

A number of media analysts seemed to echo Mehleb. Howaida Mustafa, professor of mass communication at Egypt’s Ain Shams university, told Al Arabiya News that the law “doesn’t target freedom of expression as it only applies in the case of terrorist acts.”

It is “aimed at fighting terrorism in Egypt given the unstable security situation.” Mustafa said there was an “issue” when the law was first proposed, but the government “was receptive and made positive amendments.”

The law “is now perfectly clear and defines precisely what journalists can or can’t do.”

In July, the government accepted to revise Article 33 of the law - which threatened journalists with jail - after a backlash from Egyptian media.

Subject to alteration

Allam said he expects the law to be “subject to alteration” when “the situation in the country stabilizes.”

He added that the law could not be considered “a step back from democracy,” but stressed the importance of “transparency ahead of the upcoming [parliamentary] elections.”

The law is viewed by many international organizations as a threat to human rights.