Monday 20 August 2012

On The Freedom Of Media, And Article 179

I was having a conversation regarding the question of media freedom in Egypt and the recent crackdowns and/or investigations against certain media figures, and I was asked to put down the thoughts I had stated into an article or a post. Well, here they are.

There is virtually no doubt that Tawfiq Okasha's Al-Faraeen TV channel represents an unflattering spot in the history of, not just Egyptian or Arab but even, world media. The channel has been the subject of condemnation of figures from across the political spectrum as well as various media professionals. But the problem with Al-Faraeen, however, is that it was suspended by an administrative order rather than a court decision, setting an alarming post-revolution precedent. This is even more regrettable given the fact that there are countless valid legal arguments for shutting down the channel or suspending it using legal due process, and that there has already been one or more existing verdicts to such an effect that have not been enforced.

Similarly, Al-Dostour newspaper appeared (through my limited intermittent contact with it) to be not quite shy about recounting grand tales of macabre conspiracies by the Muslim Brotherhood without appearing to have provided any substantial evidence for such claims, again - valid legal grounds for investigation. Some observers even accuse it of calling for a military coup against a sitting democratically-elected president in a recent front page (a reading of that page's seemingly intentionally vague final paragraph seems to support this accusation). But the problem here was the (yes, court ordered) confiscation of new issues of the paper, its potential shutting down. We thought confiscations were a thing of the past.

Then, a few overriding concerns.

1- A wide majority of the journalistic community has long demanded an end to prison sentences for crimes pertaining publishing, and to have imprisonment be replaced with financial punishment through varying fines. Both Okasha and Al-Dostour's Islam Afifi (in addition to recently summoned editors-in-chief Abdel-Haleem Qandeel and Adel Hammouda) now face the possibility of prison sentences.

2- While the falsification of news or the incitement to inflict harm against any citizen and - by extension - any state official should be a punishable crime, these media figures also face accusations under the Orwellian article 179 of the penal code that makes it a crime to "Insult The President." As I understand, that article was also used against (former Al-Dostour, and current Al-Tahrir, editor in chief) Ibrahim Eissa by the Mubarak regime to put him behind bars, and also used in parliament against former MP Ziad El-Eleimy to justify punishment against him for the alleged insult of then-acting president Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. While I find insults and non-constructive criticism in media against state officials to be regrettable and unnecessary, I believe that they should not be criminalised, especially in a nascent democracy like ours with a recurring historic precedent of turning leaders into untouchable figures.

3- The legal code itself is full of archaic and incredulous articles. The code (I am being told this is up-to-date, and excerpts of the pertinent articles have been used as of late in the media) includes articles such as 98bis which punishes any person or entity forming a group that would threaten the "foundational principles upon which the nation's socialist system" is founded, which is both darkly humourous and dumbfounding given how the reference to socialism has been dropped from the constitution in 2007, and given how it is moronic article to begin with. Section one of article 174, as I understand it, punishes those who call for the "hatred or contempt" of the system of government using any media. Article 180 punishes by imprisonment anyone who insults a foreign head of state in the media as well. Article 185 also punishes anyone who similarly insults pretty much any state official or judge. Article 178 appears to be punish those who display "improper facets" of the state, among other things. Article 183, as I understand it, punishes (again by imprisonment and/or fine) anyone who insults pretty much any state institution, including parliament. The criticisms go on and on, both of the intention of the articles themselves, their phrasing, and the designated punishments. And the reason I keep using the expressions "as I understand it" and "as it appears" is due to the often too rubbery and vague phrasing of the articles, which both can be a blessing or a curse for a defendant, a tool for mercy or oppression by the judge.

4- This all is happening at a time where other alarming media trends are occurring. The parliament's upper house, dominated by the MB, continued the former regime's tradition of appointing the heads  of state newspapers and print-media organisations (which also were the subject of many calls of reform themselves), with the appointments garnering wide criticism both for taking place to begin with (rather than using other means that grant independence to these publications) as well as for the actual choices of editors-in chief which have largely been controversially described as either Islamist-leaning or easily-controllable.

Already there have been reports of articles criticising the MB being censored in such papers, while Al-Akhbar (the second leading state-owned Egyptian daily) cancelled one of its op-ed pages that  prominently featured writers not belonging to the organisation, with journalist Youssef Al-Qaeed describing the rationale behind the move as silencing a page that essentially featured critiques of the MB and Islamists (the paper argued the move was to cut costs and to give a chance to the institution's own writers.) 

5- And while the abolishment of the Ministry Of Information has long been a popular consensual demand of all revolutionary forces (it was briefly abolished after the revolution only to be returned by a SCAF-supervised government), president Mohamed Morsy and his cabinet did not axe the ministry either, and instead appointed a Brotherhood figure to the post. While there have been reports that this minister claimed he would be the last such minister, it would have significantly been better to take immediate moves to ensure seriousness regarding the abolishment of the ministry and transforming it and its dependent media into a BBC-like independent organisation, at least appoint a non-partisan choice for the post or even a multi-person committee charged with managing the transition. Further, the MB has been criticising the media as being unfairly biased against them, and protesters who were described as belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood were reported to have attempted to block the Media Production City while protesting and there were reports of "attacks" on media figures there, though they appear to have been somewhat exaggerated in detail. This has all been feeding the fuels of suspicion for some that there are moves by the Brotherhood to control the media.

The point is that there needs to be a serious conversation on, and immediate attention to, what is taking place in Egyptian media; regarding both the transformations already occurring as well as the ethics and proper conduct of the profession. There also needs to be an immediate project on the reform of media and the articles of the penal code pertaining to it (in addition to an overhaul of the code itself in its totality). But most immediately: archaic and Stalinist articles pertaining to the insult of state officials and institutions need to be abolished, and charges based on them need to be dropped, a clear timeline and concrete steps towards the abolishment of the "Information" Ministry must come forth, and criticisms of the recent appointments of state media heads needs to be addressed. Otherwise, suspicions may not have entirely been hyperbolic.

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