Letters   |   Egypt

Egypt's constitutional reforms should ensure free press

September 23, 2013

His Excellency Amr Moussa
President of the Constitutional Committee
Shura Council Headquarter, Qasr El-Aini St., Cairo
Egypt

Dear Mr. Moussa,

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, non-profit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide, respectfully urges the Constitutional Committee to adopt comprehensive reforms that will unequivocally guarantee all Egyptians, including all media, freedom of speech and the right to information.

On September 8, the 50-member committee you lead began work on amending Egypt's 2012 constitution. Members were appointed by Interim President Adly Mansour, following nominations by political parties, professional unions, and various state bodies and civil society organizations. The committee is expected to present its recommendations within two months and they will then be put to a popular referendum.

CPJ and others criticized the 2012 Constitution for introducing new limits on free speech, for example by adding the criminal charge of "insulting the prophets" and allowing authorities to shut media outlets if a judicial review found employees had failed to "respect the sanctity of the private lives of citizens and the requirements of national security."

In addition, the repressive legal framework that existed under former President Hosni Mubarak was largely left intact. Nearly 70 articles in eight different laws restrict freedom of the press and freedom of expression, according to an October 2012 study by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

Broad aspects of public discourse are limited by legal prohibitions against, among other things, blasphemy; anti-state propaganda; insults to public  officials and states; incitement to disobedience in the army; disruption of national peace; and publication of material inimical to public taste.

We are encouraged by news reports that the committee has accepted for consideration recommendations submitted by the Journalists Syndicate to abolish major restrictions on the press, including more than 30 criminal statutes affecting the media, among them the insult laws, which are widely used to stifle criticism of public officials and other countries. We hope these recommendations are fully reflected in the committee's final draft.

As the Constitutional Committee continues its deliberations, CPJ would like to put forward the following specific recommendations to ensure the final draft makes unconstitutional several existing threats to press freedom. CPJ recommends the committee adopt constitutional articles that would:

Embrace an explicit, expansive guarantee of freedom of speech that includes all media and guarantees all citizens a right to information.

Ensure any statutes regarding incitement to violence adhere to international standards of free speech.  The internationally recognized Johannesburg Principles defined incitement to violence in the context of national security as "intended to incite imminent violence," "likely to incite such violence," and have a "direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence." Egyptian law must provide adequate safeguards against abuse, including "prompt, full and effective judicial scrutiny," according to the principles, which were adopted in 1995 by experts in international law, national security, and freedom of expression.

Ensure an end to all censorship and the practice of shutting down newspapers with court orders. Allowing executive bodies to request the confiscation of newspapers through expedited court action opens doors for abuse.

Ensure no government involvement regarding any journalistic code of ethics. Decisions on whether to develop such a code, and what such a code might include, must be made independently at the sole discretion of Egyptian journalists.

Ensure the complete autonomy of the judicial system. This should include prohibiting military trials for civilians, including journalists. The courts alone should be empowered to conduct independent and impartial reviews of all cases involving press freedom.

CPJ recently expressed concern over the deteriorating state of press freedom in Egypt and the obvious need to provide Egyptian journalists legal protections.

Since 2011, we have recorded the deaths of nine journalists who were killed because of their work in Egypt, including five who were killed since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July.

Additionally, three journalists are currently being tried before military courts in connection with their work, and at least 10 media outlets have been raided by security forces. At least five of them remain closed.  

We would welcome an opportunity to meet with you or any of the members of the Constitutional Committee at your earliest convenience to discuss our recommendations and to continue dialogue around these critical issues. Thank you very much for your attention. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
CPJ Executive Director

CC:

Hazem Al Beblawi, Prime Minister
Mohamed Tawfik, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States
Mohamed Salmawi, Spokesperson, Egypt's Constitutional Committee
Diaa Rashwan, Constitutional Committee Member and President of the Journalists' Syndicate

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