Are African anti-terror laws actually aimed at terrorists?

At the June funeral of Egypt’s State Prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, who was killed from injuries sustained when the Province of Sinai terrorist group allegedly implanted a bomb, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared that “the arm of justice is chained by the law” and that his government will amend the law in order “to implement justice as soon as possible.”

However, the law he signed into law on August 16 has been criticised for going beyond seeking justice to in practice, silencing journalists. “This anti-terror law is supposed to protect the citizen and the country’s security against terrorism. Yet, some of its articles (art 29, 31 and 35) are dangerous for journalists’ freedom,” said Alexandra El Khazen of the North Africa/Middle East Bureau of Reporters Without Borders, a group that advocates press freedom. A few days after El Khazen’s statement, an Egyptian court sentenced three Aljazeera journalists to three years in prison for spreading false news and supporting a terrorist group, among other things. Their trial and imprisonment have been widely condemned as another effort to clamp down on journalists with the sledgehammer of anti-terrorism.

Egypt’s government is one of several in Africa which have sought to respond to the rise in terror with new rules of engagement. Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tunisia have all enacted anti-terror legislations in recent years. Like the aforementioned law in Egypt, most of these laws have been controversial. While the authorities say they are aimed at neutralising terrorists and their threats, many argue that the laws are a cover for human rights abuses often meted out on members of the political opposition and critics of the government. For example, Egypt’s recently enacted anti-terrorism legislation, which the government says will enable security operatives and the justice system tackle terrorism swiftly and effectively, has been described by activists and members of the opposition as a ploy to undermine human rights and reduce the accountability of government forces.

According to the new law, journalists that promote or incite terrorist attacks risk years of prison while those who defy the official narrative or publish false information regarding operations against armed fighters will have to pay a fine.

Alexandra El Khazen says the laws are broad and serve to deter independent journalists from working freely and accesing diversified sources. The aim, she says, is to prioritize the state’s narrative and eliminate dissenting voices. “Today even an expert in these matters, an eye-witness, and a security source can be punished if their version differs from the state narrative.” This is similar to Cameroon’s 2014 anti-terrorism law, which the opposition and critics say will severely restrict the freedoms of speech and demonstration. “The press men were saying to the government spokesman that are you telling us that whenever we have information we bring it to you before we publish it? He said yes, and if you don’t bring them it is punishable by law and so forth,” opposition leader Joseph Banadzem told the Voice of America.

Egyptian government’s clampdown on journalists in the name of fighting terrorism predates its new law. In 2014, an Egyptian court jailed three Al-Jazeera journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed—for links with a terrorist group, broadcasting false reports of civil strife and operating without licenses- charges that have been widely condemned as false. Greste, an Australian, was deported in April, but last week an Egyptian court re-sentenced him (in Absentia), Fahmy and Mohammed to three years in prison. While the Aljazeera journalists have gathered the most global attention, it is not an isolated incident. There are at least 18 Egyptian journalists in jail on allegations of supporting terrorism. Among them is Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a photojournalist professionally known as Shawkan. He has been behind bars for over 700 days without charge after being arrested while covering a demonstration in August 2013. “I am a photojournalist, not a criminal,” Shawkan wrote from his cell in April. “My indefinite detention is psychologically unbearable. Not even animals would survive in these conditions.”

Alexandra says the new laws will only make the plight of journalists like Shawkan worse. “It only promises dark days for the press, and without a free press there can’t be any lasting democracy. The anti-terror laws only worsen the media landscape in Egypt because it is already repressed.” The Kenyan judiciary averted such worsening of press freedom in the country when it struck out eight sections of the country’s 2014 anti-terrorism law in February. “Section 12 of the security law is unjustifiable in any democratic society to the extent that it purports to limit media freedom. We find it unconstitutional for violating the freedom of expression and media as guaranteed by the Constitution,” five judges of a Nairobi High Court unanimously ruled. However, the judges allowed some controversial clauses of the law such as those giving security forces the power to carry out covert operations to prevent attacks, also allowing for the detention of terror suspects beyond 24 hours.

Tunisia’s new anti-terrorism law follows the same trajectory. Enacted in response to the massacre of 38 tourists on a Tunisian beach in June and an attack in March on the Bardo museum in Tunis which left 21 tourists dead, the new law allows authorities to hold suspects for up to 15 days without access to a lawyer. Rights groups have described the new law as draconian and fear it could lead the country back to the Ben Ali days of political repression. “While Tunisia should take all reasonable steps to address terrorism and protect public safety, some provisions of the proposed law could lead to serious human rights violations,” Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch said earlier this month. “Respect for human rights needs to be at the law’s heart for counterterrorism efforts to succeed.”

At the heart of Egypt’s new counterterrorism law is also its shielding of security forces from prosecution for what it calls the proportionate use of force “in performing their duties.” This, Mohamed Elmessiry, a researcher at Amnesty International, said “paves the way for impunity.” “The law here is a system that is not protecting the citizenry, but rather protecting the state … it is becoming indicative of the consolidation of power in the hands of the executive,” Dalia Fahmy, an assistant professor at Long Island University and a member of the Egyptian Rule of Law Association, told Al Jazeera. Right groups and the political opposition in Cameroon and Uganda share the same fears with their respective anti-terrorism laws. The vague definition of what constitutes an act of terror worries them the most, especially when under the rule of regimes already infamous for political repression. For example, Cameroon’s new law, which stipulates the death penalty for terrorist acts, expands the meaning of terrorism to include “any activity which can lead to a general revolt of the population or disturb the normal functioning of the country.” Banadzem says it is a text that takes aim at civil peaceful demonstrations and organized dissent.

The Ethiopian government is the most popular for using its anti-terrorism laws to target dissent. Authorities have used the country’s 2009 anti-terrorism law to jail dozens of journalists and government critics. “Any dissenting voices including the opposition have been regarded as terror group,” said Sebastian Gatimu, a researcher with Institute of Security Studies (ISS) for Africa. “To the government, anybody not supporting it becomes a subject for interrogation and can subsequently be regarded as a sympathizer of the opposing forces, regarded as terror groups by the government.” Mohamed Zaree, with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, says the same thing is happening in Egypt and it is not solving terrorism either. “The government’s strategy is to crush freedoms while it has shown no success in combating terror.” The judges who chopped off parts of the Kenyan government’s controversial laws seemed to agree. In their ruling they stated that “violating fundamental human rights does not add value to the fight against terrorism.” Yet, several sections of African anti-terrorism laws are set out to do just that. “There is increasing perception that some provisions contained in these laws are meant to reign in opposition to government especially in societies where meaningful space for the opposition and civil society is questionable or shrunken,” Irene Ndung’u, an ISS Africa researcher focused on terrorism and radicalization in East Africa, said.

For Mohammed Zaree, Egypt’s terrorism problem is not caused by the lack of legal provisions, but of strategic vision. His statement holds for the several African countries battling terrorism, among them Nigeria which, despite passing an anti-terrorism law in 2011 (and an amendment in 2013), has struggled to end the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast which has killed over 15,000 civilians. Instead, the country’s security forces have been heavily criticized by Amnesty International for several human rights abuses, accusations the new President Muhammadu Buhari has promised to handle seriously. “I would argue that Africa’s anti-terror laws have achieved mixed results in curbing terror. Balancing on the one hand, the need to uphold the rule of law and human rights (both for the terror suspects and victims) with justice on the other hand, has been a dicy affair for governments,” Irene said. “Many human rights cases have been reported, including the issue of ethnic profiling, extra-judicial killings etc and in such instances, anti-terror laws have clearly been violated.” These and other repressive or heavy-handed criminal justice responses – outside of the rule of law framework, she adds, only makes things worse.

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