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Report finds 2013 was worst year for free expression in Egypt in five years

Coinciding with the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) launched on 3 May its first annual report (in Arabic) on the violations of freedom of expression in Egypt throughout 2013. World Press Freedom Day is observed worldwide on 3 May of every year, to remind governments of their duty to protect and promote freedom of expression, and to expose their abuses of journalists and opinion leaders.

According to the report, Egyptian courts and interrogation rooms have witnessed many cases concerning the exercise of freedom of expression in its various forms in 2013.

The report concludes that the violent political transitions the country witnessed during 2013 had a great impact on the status of freedom of thought and expression. The beginning of the year had the Muslim Brotherhood grasping at the reins of power. By June, a sweeping popular movement had emerged to demand early presidential elections and the resignation of former President Mohamed Morsy, bringing the military to the forefront of the political scene. In either case, freedom of expression did not escape violations by the authorities, even though the rate of violations increased to an unprecedented level during the second half of 2013.

The report focuses on violations of freedom of the press and the media, freedom of artistic expression, freedom of expression of religious belief, freedom of expression on the internet, academic and student freedoms, and the right to protest and peaceful assembly.

AFTE affirms that this first report enumerates only those violations which could be identified and documented by the reporting team, and that much information on violations of freedom of expression was overlooked due to the lack of verifiable sources.

In its first section, the report addresses freedom of expression in light of Egypt's legislative policy and international obligations, which have been violated by authorities in several cases as shown in the report. Violated provisions include article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires ratifying States parties to respect and promote freedom of expression and information; article 21 of the same Covenant, which requires governments to protect the right to protest and peaceful assembly; article 18(1) of the same covenant, which grants freedom of expression of religious belief; and article 15(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which provides for the legal protection of freedom of artistic and cultural expression, disrespected by the Egyptian government on several occasions. Egyptian legislation restricting freedom of expression is addressed in the same part of the report.

The report then identifies serious violations of the right to protest and peaceful assembly, ranging from arrest of demonstrators and breakup of protests by force, to criminal prosecution of demonstrators. Violations of the right to protest and peaceful assembly spanned the period between the commemoration of the anniversary of the January 25th Revolution in the beginning of 2013, throughout the protests against former President Mohamed Morsy and later the breakup of demonstrations and sit-ins of his supporters upon his ousting, up to the protests against the policies of the present authority.

According to the report, freedom of the press and the media was always a target for abuse. The journalism and media scene witnessed a great number of violations, amounting to 38 prosecutions; 57 cases of smashing cameras; as well as myriad cases of use force against journalists and members of the media, including 7 killings, 43 birdshot, rubber bullet or gunshot injuries, 3 cases of suffocation by tear gas, and 115 cases of physical assault. The report indicates that these violations where committed by a wide range of actors, including political parties, forces and groups; ordinary individuals; and government authorities, the latter having detained 30 journalists, prevented 4 from performing their work, discontinued the broadcast of 6 media outlets, and raided the offices of 6 other media outlets.

As for freedom of expression at universities and among the academic community, the report lists 14 cases of investigation and prosecution, 21 referrals to administrative investigation and disciplinary boards, 3 violations of the rights of faculty members, 18 dismissals from colleges or dormitories, 14 cases of banning activities and events, 36 cases of police intervention to breakup student demonstrations and strikes, 24 cases of assault by civilians, 9 by administrative security, and 44 by police and army forces.

With regard to violations of the freedom of artistic expression during 2013, the report documents a number of lawsuits brought before the Administrative Courts of the State Council, aiming at banning the broadcasting of certain artistic contents on the basis of religious reasons pertaining to the representation of certain religious figures, or showing disdain and contempt for religions.

As for the freedom of digital expression and freedom of publishing and accessing information in any form via digital media, the report states that 2013 has witnessed two types of proceedings: appeals filed by citizens, and appeals filed by the Ministry of Interior; most prominently, a lawsuit demanding the shut-down of YouTube for showing segments of the film “Innocence of Muslims”, known in the media as the “film offending the prophet”.

Concerning freedom of expression of belief, the report concludes that all detected violations took the form of complaints filed by citizens out of a desire to punish the victims for expressing their opinions on religious issues, in a manner deemed by some plaintiffs to be insulting to their religious views, and by others to be seditious and detrimental to national unity. The most prominent cases featured in the report are those of blogger Albert Sabir, teacher Dumyana Abdel Nour, and most recently the case of Shereef Gaber.

As the presidential elections draw nearer, AFTE believes that the new president, once in office, should undertake to heal the scars left by the massive violations of freedom of expression during 2013, in view of the fact that freedom of expression, as the mother of all rights and freedoms, is an indispensable pillar in any democratic society.

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