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Media blackout, violent clashes follow Egypt's constitutional crisis

UPDATE: Journalist Al-Hosseiny Abu Deif dies from head injury after six days in hospital. (RSF, 13 December 2012)


(IFEX) - 6 December 2012 - While covering what started as a peaceful protest on 4 December 2012 in front of the presidential palace in Egypt against President Mohamed Morsi's constitutional decree and the newly-introduced Constitution, journalist Al-Hosseiny Abu Deif was hit in the head by a rubber bullet fired at close range as protests morphed into violent clashes between Morsi's supporters and those opposing him.

He has since been hospitalized and is said to be in critical condition.

Other journalists were also injured during the course of the night.

“Witnesses say the president's supporters deliberately targeted and attacked journalists,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said. “We call on President Morsi to order an investigation into the circumstances of these attacks and to punish those responsible.”

A witness told RSF that Morsi's supporters intentionally targeted Abu Deif, who had been showing colleagues photos of the president's supporters holding weapons just five minutes before he was shot. His camera was then stolen as colleagues went to his aid.

Abu Deif worked for El-Fagr newspaper, a newsweekly based in Cairo which joined a one-day media blackout on 3 December 2012 organised by a number of Egypt's most prominent independent newspapers in protest against the proposed Egyptian Constitution which imposes a number of severe restrictions on press freedom.

The Egypt Independent, an online news site which also participated in the blackout, showed the following message on its website as part of the strike: "You are reading this message because Egypt Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity."

The major concerns that arise for press freedom in the final draft of the Constitution include the creation of a National Media Council to regulate “issues of audio-visual broadcast, print and digital media, and others.”

Among the primary objectives of this council will be the establishment of standards to which the press and media will be held in order to observe “constructive social values and traditions”, reports the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

Morsi's opposition and members of the media are worried this particular article and the Constitution as a whole will result in the stifling of criticism aimed at the government, other political figures and religious leaders.

In an unexpected move that angered many Egyptians, the Constitution's final draft was hurriedly approved by the largely Islamist Constituent Assembly on 30 November.

The motive behind it was to obstruct a decision by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court that could have resulted in the Assembly's dissolution, news reports said.

After being prevented by Morsi supporters from ruling on the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly, the Supreme Constitutional Court suspended the court's sessions, resulting in an ongoing political standoff between the president and the judiciary.

The International Press Institute's (IPI) Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “We are concerned that a draft constitution that does not properly protect freedom of the media has been rushed into being, and could result in Egyptian journalists facing many of the same restrictions that they did in the past.”

Similar to the situation under Hosni Mubarak's rule, the proposed Constitution does nothing to halt the practice of imprisoning journalists for press-related offenses.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) highlighted and clarified other articles in the Constitution that particularly jeopardize media freedoms and freedom of expression in Egypt.

"We support the right of journalists to seek protection under this new constitution," said CPJ's Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. "We call on President Mohamed Morsi to work with civil society and press freedom groups to craft a constitution that truly guarantees freedom of expression and eliminates restrictions in the current draft."

The president announced this week that Egypt's draft constitution would be put to a national referendum on 15 December.
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