A Canadian journalist branded as a terrorist by the Egyptian government says new laws passed in the country today make it likely that other reporters will meet the same fate.
Mohamed Fahmy and two of his colleagues with Al Jazeera English were jailed for more than a year after the Egyptian government accused them of supporting a rival political organization and undermining national security through their media coverage.
Fahmy says his imprisonment and two trials were governed by a set of unwritten rules that have now become official Egyptian law.
The new rules, signed into law Sunday night by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, define terrorism very broadly as “any act that disturbs public order with force.”
Journalists are explicitly banned from reporting news that contradicts official government statements, and people found breaching the sweeping laws can face penalties ranging from hefty fines to lengthy prison sentences.
Fahmy says the new regulations enshrine the unjust system that’s kept him in legal limbo for the past 2 1/2 years.
The laws, he said, virtually ensure his story will play out again.
“It wasn’t written down in black and white. It wasn’t all laid out. Now it’s out in the open,” Fahmy said in a telephone interview from Cairo. “It’s very clear that if you don’t toe the government line, you will be prosecuted.”
Authorities in Egypt say the new measures will help combat Islamic militants, but international rights groups and even some Egyptian politicians and judges have raised concerns about the restrictive laws.
The 54-article bill prescribes stiff jail sentences for a range of crimes, including promoting or encouraging any “terrorist offence” or damaging state institutions or infrastructure. Some charges, such as leading or organizing a terrorist group, carry the death penalty.
The laws simultaneously loosens restrictions on law enforcement officials, with one article stating that there would be no criminal inquiries against those who use force to implement its statutes or protect themselves or property from imminent danger.
Egyptians lived for decades under so-called “emergency law” that gave police sweeping powers, something that partially inspired the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The law was suspended after his overthrow, but rights activists say that the new anti-terrorism law is even more draconian than the emergency law.
Regulations for journalists are similarly strict. Media organizations can be fined between $33,400 and $83,600 for publishing “false news or statements” about terrorist acts, or news contradicting the Defence Ministry’s reports.
Fahmy said such measures remove all meaning from his profession.
“Why are journalists even there? Why don’t we just drop our pens and cameras and just sit around and wait for the government to release their statements?” he said. “There’s no reason to do journalism any more. Our job is to challenge governments.”
Fahmy’s troubles began in December 2013 when he was working as the Cairo bureau chief for Qatar-based satellite news broadcaster Al Jazeera English.
Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed were detained and charged with a slew of offences, including fabricating footage to undermine the country’s national security.
They were convicted in a widely criticized trial and slapped with lengthy prison sentences before an appeal sent them back to court for a new trial. Fahmy, who is free on bail, is currently awaiting the new verdict, currently scheduled to be handed down on Aug. 29.
Fahmy said Egypt’s new laws leave him feeling deeply concerned, and not just for his media colleagues who are still practising in the country.
He cites the legislation as part of a troubling worldwide trend, adding Canada’s recent passing of bill C-51 is another example.
“It’s not just an Egyptian issue now. It’s a global epidemic where journalists and civil liberties are being sidelined and democracy is taking a secondary place in order to champion this so-called ’war on terror.”’