The Center for Human Rights Legal Aid expresses grave concern over the government's recent efforts aimed at destroying public liberties, foremost among which is the freedom of the press and the activities of civil society and its non-governmental organizations.
CHRLA had issued warnings in a release issued immediately following the amendment of the Joint-Stock Company Law, that the Egyptian authorities continually make their anti-democracy and public liberties position clear. Within a few weeks of the date the release was issued, Egypt witnessed a number of serious developments regarding the freedom of the press, the freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to circulate information, which clearly highlighted the fragility and narrowness of the margin for democracy in Egypt.
Editor-in-Chief of the opposition newspaper Al-Sha'ab Magdi Ahmad Hassan and Al-Sha'ab journalist Muhammad Helmi Hilal were given prison sentences in implementation of the ruling issued against them of one year imprisonment for defamation by publishing articles against the son of the former minister of the interior. Gamal Fahmi, assistant director, was also sentenced to a six-month prison term on 16 March 1998. He was arrested in a dramatic police mission in which police officers were positioned outside his house and the houses of several relatives to secure the arrest. Instructions were also issued to transfer journalist Adel Hamuda from his position as deputy editor-in-chief of Rose al-Youssef magazine to Al-Ahram newspaper for reasons related to some of the articles published in the magazine.
At the same time, founders of the independent weekly magazine "Al-Hadaf", which was due to be published at the beginning of March 1998, were appalled to discover that the license they had obtained to issue the newspaper as a joint-stock company was invalid following the amendment of the Joint-Stock Company Law, which obliges companies to obtain permission from the Cabinet if their objectives include the publication of newspapers. Public opinion was one of shock following the sudden disappearance of the independent newspaper "Al-Dustur", one of the weekly newspapers which enjoys wide circulation. This occurred following a decree from the Ministry of Information withdrawing its approval to publish the newspaper which is published in Cyprus and distributed in Egypt. This withdrawal came after Al-Dustur published an article about a statement by the Gama'a Islamiya threatening to assassinate a number of Coptic businessmen on February 24. This decree resulted in the actual closure of the newspaper, especially after the authorities rejected attempts to issue the newspaper through one of the opposition political parties. The lawsuit filed to obtain a judicial ruling to cancel the decree also failed.
I n addition, the Cairo Times, a fortnightly news magazine published in English every other Thurday, was banned on 19 March for publishing an interview with the Islamic writer Khalil ĎAbd al-Karim. This confiscation comes only a few weeks after the security authorities picked up the deputy editor of the news magazine, Andrew Hammond, for the purpose of questioning him. The deputy editor was arrested inside the Journalistsí Syndicate and was kept for six hours, without legal justification, before being released.
Security authorities, without any legal basis to issue permits or obstruct the establishment of companies working in the field of journalism and publications, were involved. During the proceedings, State Lawsuits Authority lawyers presented a copy of a letter from the Companies' Authority conveying the objection of security authorities to the establishment of Al-Dustur company, along with another copy of a letter from the Companies' Authority to the State Security Intelligence requesting it to investigate if it was possible to proceed with the establishment of the company. A third copy of the State Security Investigations letter was sent to the Head of the Companies' Authority conveying the objection to establish the company. A fourth copy was sent to State Security Investigations (SSI), which included a request from the founders' representative to reconsider the SSI position regarding the establishment of the company. The final copy of a letter sent from the Security Department at the office of the Head of the Companies' Authority affirmed that security authorities did not issue approval of the request to establish the company.
The attack against the press is compounded by increasing media attacks against the freedom of the press under the pretext of combatting the "yellow" press. The Supreme Press Council rolled up its sleeves, and following a meeting with the president, announced that strict action was to be taken to reorganize the journalism profession, including the withdrawal of licenses from newspapers which failed to publish within three months of the date of obtaining the license, an that it was considering placing restrictions on the right of political parties to issue newspapers, and restricting this right to one newspaper per political party.
CHRLA notes that the recent whirlwind attacks against the press coincides with the state tendency to tighten its control over the activities of civil and non-governmental organizations, and in particular those working in the field of human rights. CHRLA notes that the attack against the press through the Press Assassination Law No. 93 /1995 was also accompanied by official campaigns which aimed to raise suspicion over the legality of non-governmental organizations working in the field of human rights.
Following are examples of the recent attack against civil society:
a. A move to fill the legal gaps which allowed the establishment of many non-governmental organizations as civil companies which enjoyed a margin of legality and provided them with freedom from arbitrary and administrative control to which other associations established under Civil Associations Law 32 of 1964 are subjected.
This tendency on the part of the state was first manifested through the amendment of the Joint-Stock Company Law, which made the registration of joint-stock companies working in any of the fields of civil associations conditional on the prior procurement of the Cabinet's approval. This tendency may also entail similar amendments to the Trade Law and other legislation related to the establishment of various types of company.
b. The decision issued by the Governors' Council prohibiting civil associations from collecting funds or donations without obtaining a license, which allows the state to exercise pressure on those associations regarding the activities to which it objects.
c. The authorities also prepared, in complete secrecy, an alternative draft law to the current Associations' Law, in preparation to obtain immediate approval due to the majority enjoyed by the ruling party within the People's Assembly.
It is worth mentioning that the current form of the draft law places civil activity at the mercy of administrative authorities, which enjoy absolute power to deny associations the licenses to obtain funds from abroad for their activities. Additionally, associations may not file cases against such administrative decisions. The draft law also entitles administrative authorities to object to the affiliation of the associations to associations or organizations outside Egypt, and also gives administrative authorities the right to object to the list of nominations for boards of directors of associations, without specifying the basis for such an objection. In addition, the draft law entitles administrative authorities to request that associations aiming to work in the sphere of public interest be designated as public benefit/interest associations, thus falling prey to further restrictions from the administrative authority. In this case, the competencies of the administrative authority may include suspending the activities of the association, or dissolving its board of directors without referring to the courts if it believes that serious violations took place.
CHRLA, which has been closely monitoring current developments, renews its call to all civil society institutions to join forces to face this extensive attack which aims at tightening control over civil society. To that effect, CHRLA affirms that the current sudden attack against the press is only part of a series of actions which aim to weaken or paralyze democratic institutions. The plan to invalidate the independence of civil activity goes hand in hand with the continued sequestration of professional and labor unions and the continued paralysis suffered by political parties under the arsenal of laws against union freedom and political plurality.
CHRLA calls upon all democratic powers to continue their efforts to repeal all anti-freedom laws, the most important of which are:
1. canceling all constitutional and legal restrictions on the freedom to issue newspapers, and guaranteeing the right of individuals to do so. CHRLA notes that the phenomena of Egyptian newspapers issued under foreign licenses is the natural result of confiscating this right inside Egypt. And although CHRLA acknowledges that some of these newspapers fail to observe the traditions and ethics of the profession, and invade the privacy of citizens, CHRLA rejects the use of such violations, which take place with the knowledge, if not the approval, of the authorities, as an excuse for confiscation or to impose further restrictions on the freedom to issue newspapers. CHRLA calls upon the journalists' syndicate council to assume its responsibilities in imposing penalties on those who violate the code of ethics, as the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression should not result in the violation of the rights or the reputation of others, and to avoid the exploitation of the violations committed by some newspapers to attack the freedom of the press. CHRLA also calls upon the Supreme Press Council to speed up its approval of the journalism code of ethics to enable the journalists' syndicate to assume its responsibilities.
2. Canceling penalties which negate the freedom to publish as they are a threat to all those working in the world of journalism, publishing, literature etc. Provisions of the press law and the penal code should suffice to guarantee the right of response and correction, in addition to monetary fines, compensation for those harmed by the publications, and the penalties issued by the journalists' syndicate against those who breach the ethics of the profession.
3. Repeal of the Civil Associations Law 32/1964 and the return to Articles 54 to 68 of the Civil Code which were repealed in the mid-1950s and which comprise a real basis for the freedom and independence of civil activity.
4. Repeal of all the unconstitutional legal restrictions included in Law 35/1976 organizing labor unions which gives the executive branch absolute control over the labor union movement, in violation of Article 56 of the Egyptian Constitution of 1971. In addition, the repeal of Law 100/1992 organizing professional unions and its subsequent amendments which rendered the general assemblies of the said unions ineffective and resulted in the continued sequestration of two of them.
5. Repeal of the Political Party Law 40/1977 and its amendments, and canceling the role and authorities of the Committee of the Affairs of Political Parties in providing or withholding legal consent from those requesting to form political parties. In addition, canceling all restrictions of the freedom to form parties while retaining the legal restrictions on organizations of a military nature.
6.Bringing the state of emergency, imposed since 1981, to an end, as it permits the Executive Authority to follow individuals, control all publications, prohibit public gatherings, and deprive civilians of a hearing before their natural jury through referral to military or emergency courts.