Egyptian journalists worry about new anti-terrorism law

A new Egyptian anti-terrorism law is set to replace the current state of emergency which has been in effect since 1981. Journalists and human rights groups are unsure if this will be an improvement.
By Yolla Ahmed, Contributor
Egypt, Cairo, news photographers protest. © AFP PHOTO/STR
Egyptian photographers protest ill-treatment by the authorities. © AFP

Bad news is still haunting Egyptian journalists. As if the recent arrests of editors and journalists weren't enough, the ghost of a new anti-terrorism bill has resurfaced in a speech by president Muhammad Hosni Mubarak before Ahmad Nazif’s government.
The issue has stirred controversy ever since president Mubarak, during his 2005 reelection campaign, promised to end the state of emergency, which has been in effect since 1981, and replace it with a new counter-terrorism law. Prime minister Nazif established a committee to draft the new law in March 2006.

If the bill is ratified - as president Mubarak insisted in his speech it should - it could have severe consequences for the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression for Egyptians in general, human right organizations have warned.

Exactly what these repercussions are, is impossible to say for the simple reason that no one has seen the bill yet. According to official statements, the committee will present the draft bill to parliament shortly. It is expected to be ratified by May 2008, i.e. just before the state of emergency is up for renewal by parliament.

However, this does not mean that the 1958 law number 162, more commonly known as the 'emergency law', is off the books. It will remain available and can still enter into force again.
The state of emergency gives the president the right to take far-reaching measures, such as restraining people's freedom of assembly or movement. It also allows government agencies to search people or locations without the constraints of the Penal Procedures Code and to control newspapers and other means of expression. 
In light of these broad prerogatives, it would seem that replacing the state of emergency with a new anti-terrorism law can only be an improvement. But the Egyptian Initiative For Personal Rights, a human rights group, is not convinced.

"Giving this regime the benefit of the doubt is simply impossible," said Hossam Bahgat, EIPR's director. "Statements by government officials about the new law will always be insufficient in the face of 25 years of systematic abuses committed under the pretext of countering terrorism."

In a policy paper, entitled 'Egypt's New Anti-Terrorism Law: A Human Rights Risk Analysis', EIPR foresees several risks that the new law could pose, including the use of broad and vague language and definitions; derogation from human rights obligations; undermining the absolute prohibition against torture and ill-treatment; sustaining abusive arrest and detention policies and the violation of fair trial guarantees; restricting freedom of expression; and interference with the right to privacy.

“We still strongly believe that Egypt could effectively address the threat of terrorism without the need for exceptional legal powers in a new anti-terrorism law," said Hossam Bahgat. “While the new law seems unstoppable now, it should not sustain the state of impunity enjoyed by security agencies for serious and widespread human rights violations."

The head of the anti-terrorism law preparation committee, Mufid Shehab, has tried to dispel these concerns by assuring that the committee will do its best to uphold the balance between public safety and the rights of the citizens.
Despite these reassurances, fears remain among Egypt's journalists community. And some journalists have suggested that journalists should put up a united front together with writers and lawyers.

But in the end, there will always be enough laws on the books to keep journalists on their toes, whether it is the 1936 publications law, the 1937 penal law number 58 or the 1996 press law number 96 among others. Even though these laws have different names, the end result is usually the same: a fine, imprisonment or both.