The Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) issued its quarterly report on the status of freedom of expression in Egypt. The report covers the period from January 1st 2017 to the end of March 2017. It includes seven sections representing the areas of activity of AFTE, namely: freedom of the press and the media, freedom of creativity, freedom of information, student rights and freedoms, academic freedom, the right to privacy, and freedom of digital expression. Through quarterly reports, AFTE seeks to provide updated and detailed material reflecting the status of freedom of expression in Egypt.
The report listed the violations documented by the association during the first quarter of 2017, which are: 56 cases in the freedom of the press and the media file, 11 cases in the freedom of creativity file, 6 cases in the student rights and freedoms file, and 5 cases in the freedom of digital expression file. The decline in documented violations only reflects the success of state institutions in their pressure to restrict freedom of expression. To do that state institutions adopted disciplinary sanctions for groups such as students, university professors, creators and media professionals, as well as trials involving social media users, journalists and writers.
The report monitored the developments of a number of investigations and lawsuits, which AFTE’s lawyers worked on during the first quarter of 2017, most notably the lawsuit filed by AFTE to enable activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah to read inside the prison, the case of photojournalist Mahmoud Abdel Naby, who is serving his fourth year in pre-trial detention, and the case of writer Ahmad Nagi, which is currently being examined by the Court of Cassation. The lawyers continued to pursue the law case filled to demand the cancellation of the decision of the Minister of Higher Education concerning the rules regulating the work of committees to select university leaders. The report presented these legal developments through its various sections, with the aim of demonstrating the impact of the investigation and litigation on the right to freedom of expression, and highlighting the fears of being subjected to legal prosecutions because of the expression of opinion.
In the first section, the report discussed the status of freedom of the press and the media, in light of the House of Representatives’ attack on some journalists and press organizations. For example, the parliament speaker filed a complaint against journalist Ibrahim Eissa, accusing him of insulting the parliament and its speaker, in addition to similar charges to Al-Ahram foundation. The report highlighted Cairo’s Qasr Al-Nile Appeals Court ruling of a one-year suspended prison sentence against former head of Egypt’s Press Syndicate Yehia Kalash, and former board member Khaled Al-Balashi, and current board member Gamal Abdel-Rahim.
The ruling is in line with the stance of the executive authority, which appears to have seen in the general assembly held by journalists following the break-in of their syndicate last year, an unacceptable challenge. The largest number of violations of freedom of the press and media was the ban from work, which amounted to 32 violations across the country, 21 of which in the capital. The security authorities -as usual- rated first among the assaulters in the first quarter of 2017 by 15 violations.
In the second section, the report discussed the conditions of freedom of creativity, where practices that restrict freedom of creativity contributed to the control of fear and caution on the orientations of the creators and their work. In regards to censorship of creative works, the report referred to “18 Days” film, which was banned from screening by the Censorship of Artistic Works. The film tackles the events of the period between January 25th 2011, till the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak on February 11th, 2011. The film was banned on the pretext that it contains a lot of obscene words. This decision reflects the continuation of censorship intervention to prevent creative works associated with the memory of the January 25th revolution. “The Last Days of the City” is another film that faced obstacles from the Censorship of Artistic Works, despite participating in prestigious international festivals such as Berlin and Bafici and Beirut Cinema Days. The Censorship of Artistic Works did not issue a permit to screen the film during the first quarter of 2017.
In the third section, the report highlighted the issue of circulation of information, especially the lack of information provided by ministries and official bodies on the situation of Christian families displaced from northern Sinai due to terrorist threats. Until the report was issued, the official authorities did not provide any information about the future of these families and their possible return to North Sinai. The report also tackled the ambiguity surrounding the new administrative capital project. In March 2017, the Minister of Housing revealed that the project is being financed from the money allocated to water, sanitation, health and education projects, in section six of the general budget. The Minister of Housing did not explain the effect of deducting this amount from the budget on the implementation of the prior plans of the Urban Communities Authority.
In the fourth section, the report dealt with the status of student rights and freedoms, particularly developments related to the preparation of a new financial and administrative regulation. The former Minister of Higher Education had set up a high committee to prepare the new regulation, comprising of 15 members, and headed by the President of Ain Shams University, Abdul Wahab Ezzat. The committee has seven students -some of whom are graduates-, university leaders, and legal experts. Students’ criticism escalated because the formation of the committee was not clear to them since the beginning of its work, and also because student unions were not consulted when choosing the graduate members. The report pointed to the correlation between the decision to prepare a new regulation and the decision taken by the Supreme Council of Universities in mid-November 2016, to postpone holding student elections until a new regulation is issued. It seems that the executive authority, represented by the Ministry of Higher Education feared the repetition of what happened in the recent student elections, when independent and opposition students won a majority of seats.
In the fifth section, the report referred to the conditions of academic freedom, most notably the continuous investigation into the murder of doctoral student Julio Regini. On January 22nd, 2017, the Egyptian Attorney General approved the request of the Italian prosecutor to send experts from the German company specialized in retrieving data from surveillance cameras to retrieve and analyze data from Dokki underground Station. However, during the first quarter of 2017, no new conclusions in the investigation or direct links between the security services and Regini’s death were announced. The report also referred to the recommendation of a parliamentary committee composed of the committees of education, scientific research and health affairs, on 27th March 2017, to dismiss Mansoura University President Mohamed El-Qenawi from his post for alleged administrative irregularities. This recommendation contravenes the principles of university autonomy and makes the parliament a lobbying body against university leaders.
In section 6, the report highlighted the challenges to the right to privacy, notably the leaking of personal telephone calls. These calls were broadcasted through TV shows presented by people well known for their support of the ruling political system, as well as their constant attack on opponents of the regime, especially politicians and activists who emerged during the January 25th revolution. The good relations between those presenters and some security agencies may have a role in obtaining records of phone calls of activists and politicians. Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei, former vice president of Egypt, and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is one prominent victim of such leaks of private calls. This opens the door to a number of questions about the bodies that tap phone calls in violation of the constitution and the law. Eavesdropping has criminal liability for those involved.
In the seventh and final section, the report addresses the state of digital freedom of expression, where violations this right represented patterns that have been repeated in previous periods. These include two cases of arrest, one of which related to opinions published through a personal page and the other related to administrating a public page, both on Face book. A third violation relates to the closure of a group of pages on the same site. There is also a documented case of a student who was referred for investigation, and another student was dismissed. Justifications in these cases repeated arguments used over the past three years, including the dissemination of extremist ideas, incitement to violence, and offending state institutions.