Cairo – Egypt on Wednesday agreed to revise a controversial article of its touted anti-terror law threatening journalists with jail for reporting anything but the official line on jihadist attacks, state media reported.
The planned law sparked a backlash from Egyptian media after it included an article threatening at least two years in prison for publishing “false information on terrorist attacks that contradict official statements”.
The bill is part of tough measures demanded by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as part of a crackdown on militants who have bedevilled the country since the army’s ouster of his Islamist predecessor Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
Egypt’s cabinet on Wednesday agreed to remove the threat of jail under Article 33 of the law, but replaced it with a heavy fine, the MENA news agency reported.
“The cabinet has agreed to remove the prison sentence under Article 33 and replace it by strengthening the fine, which can range from 200 000 to 500 000 Egyptian pounds (between $25 500 to $64 000),” MENA said, quoting government spokesperson Hossam al-Qawish.
But an official from the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, Khaled al-Balchi, said the revision just created “another type of imprisonment” as the fine would still be far beyond the means of most journalists.
He also denounced the “totalitarian logic of the law, which aims to silence all opposition voices within the country”.
Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind has said the article was first adopted because of the media coverage of a wave of bloody jihadist attacks against the army in the Sinai Peninsula on July 1.
The military said 21 soldiers were killed in the violence, claimed by ISIS, but media agencies reported higher tolls citing unnamed security sources.
The attacks came days after state prosecutor Hisham Barakat was assassinated in a car bombing, the most senior government official killed in the jihadist insurgency, prompting Sisi to demand tougher laws and faster trials for alleged militants.
Hundreds of soldiers and policemen have been killed by militants since Morsi’s overthrow, while at least 1 400 people, mostly Islamists, have lost their lives during a police crackdown on protesters.
While policemen have largely been cleared of wrongdoing in the deadly crackdown, the law would grant them further protection from prosecution over abuses, according to critics.
Rights group Amnesty International said the draft law “represents a flagrant attack on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association” and “weakens safeguards to ensure fair trials and widens the use of the death penalty”.
“If approved, it is set to become yet another tool for the authorities to crush all forms of dissent,” said Said Boumedouha, deputy director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa programme.
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