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Opinion: Muzzling the messenger

Naomi Conrad
August 17, 2015

Egypt's president has ratified an anti-terrorism law that levies hefty fines for "false" reporting on militant attacks and security operations. Naomi Conrad fears that authorities want to stifle independent journalism.

Suez Kanal Eröffnung Präsident Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Ägypten
Image: Reuters/The Egyptian Presidency

About three weeks ago, in Cairo's sweltering summer heat, Mohamed Lofty leaned forward in his smoke-filled office and said matter-of-factly that Egypt was poised to "kill any independent words." On Sunday, Lofty, the director of the nonprofit Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, was proved right: Late at night, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi (pictured), the former head of the Egyptian military, signed a controversial anti-terrorism law that was designed to turn the heat up further on any independent journalism, stipulating hefty fines for reporting "false" information on terrorist attacks or security operations that contradict official statements.

The law's introduction was speeded up in the aftermath of heavy clashes between the military and militants on the Sinai Peninsula and the assassination of state prosecutor Hisham Barakat in a car bombing in late June. Back then, the military was infuriated after media, quoting unnamed security officials and witnesses, reported that dozens of troops had been killed in the Sinai attack, while the military's official death toll was 21 soldiers.

The original draft law proposed jail sentences for these kinds of "offenders," but the government backed down after a backlash from Egyptian media - a minor victory in a country where many outlets, with a few notable and brave exceptions, have increasingly been towing the official line and serving as cheerleaders for an increasingly repressive regime.

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DW's Naomi Conrad


The minimum fine for "false" reporting is 200,000 Egyptian pounds (23,000 euros/$25,000), the maximum a whopping 500,000 pounds.

And that makes any appearance of independent journalism in Egyptian a farce - at least when it comes to reporting on security operations and the Sinai Peninsula, where an Islamist uprising that had simmered for years has recently flared. As the army battles militants - many of whom belong to the "Sinai Province," a declared affiliate of the "Islamic State" - and ever more residents are forced to flee, journalists, it seems, are only to rely on official figures of death toll and attacks, rather than on local residents who risk their lives to give firsthand accounts to journalists like me.

Like my source in Sinai who told me of checkpoints flying IS flags just a few kilometers from military posts close to Sheikh Zuaid and Rafah, and entire ghost villages deserted by residents and controlled by militants. Invaluable to us journalists - barred ourselves from visiting Sinai - these sources counted the bodies of militants killed in a recent firefight and reported them back to us.

Now, the law stipulates, I am to discard basic rules of journalism such as turning to independent sources and fact-checking official statements as best I can - or, rather, I am to keep to myself any information that contradicts the official line.

And that is why journalists like Mohamed Mekawy, a 27-year old online editor at the Egyptian online portal Masrawy, call the law "insane."

And, to make things worse, the law comes with a whole raft of other measures, including harsh penalties for acts of terrorism - defined quite broadly: Even "promoting ideas that call for violence" now carries a sentence of several years - and specialized courts to try terrorism cases, with a mandate to reach judgments quickly. The human rights lawyer Gamal Eid calls this a "crystal clear violation of the independent judicial system." The law also shields security forces from prosecution if they use force "when facing a real and imminent threat" while implementing the law.

"I am scared," Eid told DW, "scared for these few brave people left who are ready to fight for their rights and true democracy."

He's not the only one who should be scared.

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