The ongoing battle over local press freedom came to a head Sunday when some 300 opposition journalists and their supporters gathered in front the parliament building in Cairo to protest a new press law, expected to be ratified Sunday. In solidarity with the journalists, 28 opposition and independent newspapers refused to publish their Sunday editions, saying the new law would only serve to erode press freedom further.
“This law kills journalism and protects the corrupt,” said Ahmed al-Sayed al-Naggar, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and member of the Journalists Syndicate. “This is a major step backwards for freedom of the press and shows that the oppressive regime wants to retain control over all information circulating in the country.”
The new law – which contradicts a 2004 promise by President Hosni Mubarak to abolish prison terms for press offences such as libel – allows for the imprisonment of offenders and augments monetary fines for so-called “publishing crimes.” It also forbids journalists from criticising the president of the republic, state bodies such as parliament and government ministries, and foreign heads of state.
It also limits the financial information that journalists can print about private individuals – a caveat many believe is designed to protect businessmen who profit from state corruption. “This law is for the benefit of certain individuals within the ruling regime or who have links to it,” said Ibrahim Mansour, managing editor of opposition weekly Al-Dustour and Journalists Syndicate board member.
Osama Faraya, however, editor-in-chief of government-run daily Al-Ahram, said that opposition journalists were over-reacting and described the new law as a “progressive” one. “Journalists have the right to publish any facts about corruption that they can confirm,” Faraya explained. “A journalist can publish documents, for example, but he can’t say the person involved is a crook until a legal judgement to that effect has been made in court.”
Faraya went on to say that the legislation aims to protect society from journalistic excesses. “Journalists can ask for a law that doesn’t allow imprisonment, but society has the right to protect itself,” he said.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of the political opposition asserts that the new law will serve to hinder the cause of political reform. “Many newspaper owners and editors will try to avoid paying fines,” said Mansour, which will have the effect of keeping journalists away from contentious subjects. “We can expect the law to bring the papers closer to the president and to many important businessmen,” he added.
“This regime doesn’t want real reform,” Mansour continued. “It’s well known that a central part of freedom is the freedom of opinion and expression, which are the essentials of journalism. This law constricts freedom in general for the benefit of the government and the regime.”
Gamal Fahmy, editor of Nasserist weekly Al-Araby, agreed. “If there isn’t freedom of expression or freedom of the press, there can’t be any democracy,” Fahmy said.