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Egypt to pass controversial anti-terror legislation

July 6, 2015

Egypt is set to pass a raft of counterterrorism measures which critics warn could also curb media freedoms. The legislation follows the assassination of the country's chief prosecutor and attacks on soldiers in Sinai.

Image: AP

Egypt's journalists' union on Monday condemned the draft law, which imposes prison sentences for publishing "false news or statements concerning terrorist operations" that contradict the official version of events.

"This is a dangerous article that violates the constitution," the union said in a statement.

"It violates the reporter's right to seek information from various sources... it allows the executive authorities to act as censors, and the judges of truth," it added.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is expected to approve the legislation later this week. The former army chief had vowed to introduce tough new laws to combat a jihadist insurgency that has taken hold in the Sinai Peninsula since the military overthrow of Islamist former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

The new bill was hurriedly approved by Cabinet over the weekend in the wake of the death of Egyptian state prosecutor Hishram Barakat in a car bombing last Monday. His assassination was followed two days later by several attacks by a local "Islamic State" affiliate on Egyptian military checkpoints in Sinai.

Gamal Eid, the head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said it was a "disaster to see the state pass such a law in an atmosphere charged with calls for revenge."

Protection from 'false information'

Article 33 of the draft bill stipulates a two year prison term for individuals who publish death tolls from militant attacks that differ from the government's figures. Following last week's Sinai killings, many media outlets reported higher casualties than the official toll of 17 soldiers.

Egyptian Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind told AFP the law should not be seen as "a restriction on media freedoms."

"The government has a duty to protect citizens from false information," he said, adding that the wording of the legislation requires proof of "intent" and "malice."

The new law also appears to grant security officials impunity when carrying out "anti-terrorism" operations, as well as provisions to set up special terrorism courts to expedite trials and reduce the number of appeals allowed to defendants.

Journalists targets?

Soon after the 2013 ouster, el-Sissi launched a crackdown on government opponents and Morsi's supporters in the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Press organizations and journalists say they too have been targeted in the crackdown.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 18 journalists were behind bars in Egypt as of June 1 - the highest number in more than 20 years.

Last year, three Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to jail on charges of supporting the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. One of them, Australian national Peter Greste, has been transferred home. A ruling in the retrial of the remaining two journalists is expected to be issued at the end of July.

nm/jr (AFP, dpa)