The climate for free expression in Egypt has worsened since Hosni Mubarak was ousted a year ago, Human Rights Watch said today. Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) should act to end assaults on journalists by security forces. It should cease prosecutions based on laws violating media freedoms, and the country’s newly elected parliament should promptly repeal those laws.
In one recent example, a Cairo misdemeanor court on December 26, 2011, sentenced a democracy activist, Gaber Elsayed Gaber, toa year in prison for handing out leaflets at a public rally in Cairo. Security forces have engaged in brutal beatings and used excessive force against demonstrators in Cairo and tried to stop journalists from reporting on them. Actions like these were hallmarks of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, but they also have been used repeatedly in the year since the SCAF assumed control on February 11, 2011, Human Rights Watch said.
“The past year has seen a disturbing assault on free expression,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Not only are direct critics of the military under physical and legal threat, but so are those who deliver these critical voices to the public.”
Violations of the right to freedom of expression have included military trials of protesters and bloggers, interrogations of journalists and activists for criticizing the military, the suspension of new satellite television licenses, and the closure of an outlet of Al Jazeera television. In two high-profile cases, the telecommunications entrepreneur Naguib Sawiris and the veteran film comedian Adel Imam have faced charges of insulting religion under vague and arbitrary laws dating from the Mubarak administration.
Human Rights Watch has documented a number of assaults on journalists by security forces during demonstrations and destruction of news media property since the SCAF took power. These efforts to hinder broadcasts of demonstrations follow several months of efforts to curb activities of independent media outlets.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported 50 assaults on and detentions of journalists in November and December alone – actions that “are effectively censoring coverage of ongoing protests in Cairo.” Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 166th in its press freedom index in 2011, a steep decline from 127th in 2010, because “the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces … dashed the hopes of democrats by continuing the Mubarak dictatorship’s practices.”
State security forces have also used excessive and sometimes deadly force to break up a series of demonstrations and sit-ins in which people were trying to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly.
“The SCAF seems to be unjustly prosecuting journalists to obscure repeated brutality against the media by security forces,” Stork said.
The Mubarak government frequently used overly broad provisions in the penal code to crack down on criticism of the government’s human rights record or the political situation. In the past year, editors, opposition leaders, and activists have been tried in both military and civilian courts for “insulting the authorities or “insulting public institutions.”
Prosecutors have relied on existing vague and arbitrary laws still in force under SCAF rule to punish journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens who dare criticize the role of the military. In some cases, people have been prosecuted for making jokes. The new parliament should act decisively to eliminate laws which infringe upon the right to free speech, Human Rights Watch said.
“Sentencing Egyptians to jail for making jokes violates free speech and makes a mockery of justice,” said Stork. “These cases send a chilling message to critics of the military rulers and supporters of democratic reform that they cannot express themselves freely.”