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Under Morsi, criminal defamation suits soar in Egypt

Wall art in France depicting President Mohamed Morsi
Wall art in France depicting President Mohamed Morsi

Abode of Chaos/flickr

(IFEX) - 23 January 2013 - When promises of increased media freedoms followed President Hosni Mubarak's downfall in early 2011, a wave of new satellite channels and newspapers flooded the media scene in Egypt.

It seemed back then that most red lines had dissolved; Egyptians were free to express their political views and criticisms without fear of retribution.

A few months after the revolution, however, it became apparent that the rights of journalists were not to be safeguarded, as criminal defamation made its way into the new constitution.

Under the title “Dignity and the prohibition against insults” Article 31 states: Insulting or showing contempt toward any human being is prohibited.

According to Index on Censorship, the vagueness of this provision allows for a broad interpretation of what could be viewed as defamation and paves the way for its exploitation.

Although President Mohamed Morsi has repeatedly insisted he is committed to the democratic system, other articles in the Islamist-drafted constitution are also viewed as a serious risk to free expression in the country.

"There is a growing trend of targeting independent and critical voices under President Mohamed Morsi's government, which is especially worrying in light of a lack of protection for the press under the new constitution," said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Morsi's first 200 days in office alone have witnessed more defamation lawsuits than under all Egyptian rulers combined since 1892.

In a report it issued days before the second year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January titled “The crime of insulting the president, an authoritarian regime crime”, ANHRI traces lawsuits filed during the reign of Egypt's five presidents. Its findings convey that at least 24 lawsuits for insulting Morsi have been filed against journalists and activists since his election in June, as opposed to only four such cases under Mubarak, and only one under Anwar Sadat.

Among those recently sued for allegedly defaming Morsi, 12 were journalists or media personalities. The latest victim was Gamal Fahmy, an opposition columnist at the independent newspaper Al-Tahrir, who mentioned that Al Husseiny Abou Deif, a journalist killed outside the presidential palace in Cairo while covering clashes on 4 December 2012, was gunned down for his public criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi himself. According to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), a Cairo prosecutor launched an investigation against Fahmy, accusing him of writing articles offensive to the President.

“Targeting opinion makers and journalists directly should be considered intellectual terrorism against those who exercise their right to freedom of expression, which, beyond doubt, includes criticizing the policies and decisions of the president,” said ANHRI in its statement denouncing the criminal investigation launched against Fahmy and others before him.

A similar investigation launched against the popular satirist and TV personality, Bassem Youssef, attracted great media attention, as the former heart surgeon —now turned comedian — enjoys a massive following in Egypt. The prosecutor general's office accused Youssef of insulting the president for holding up a red furry pillow stamped with Morsi's image during his popular TV show Al Bernameg. Youssef used the pillow as a prop to mock the way the president delivers his speeches.

Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor of the independent weekly Sawt al-Umma, is also under investigation for writing an article in October 2012 entitled, “Morsi, you are a liar”.

According to ANHRI's latest report, accusations have been made not only against individuals but against media outlets as well. Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Fagr and Al-Tahrir newspapers as well as TV channels Al-Fareen and Al-Qahera Wa Al-Nas have all been accused of insulting the president.
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