Is the Egyptian government’s clampdown on journalists finally over?
The Egyptian government has released 100 prisoners including two Al Jazeera journalists who were jailed for broadcasting false reports of civil strife and operating without licenses. A statement from President Sisi’s office issued on Wednesday said Fahmy and Mohamed were listed among 100 young people to be pardoned, those “who had received final court sentences, having been convicted on the grounds of violating the anti-protest law and assaulting police forces”. “Other prisoners were pardoned due to health conditions and on humanitarian grounds,” it added.
The journalists were dropped off in a Cairo suburb after their release, still dressed in prison uniforms.”The whole nightmare is over,” said Mr Mohamed. The second journalist, Fahmy, who formally abandoned his Egyptian citizenship to qualify for deportation in February, is set to depart for Canada following his release.
In August 2015, President Abdel Fatta al-Sisi adopted new measures in order to amend the law and protect its enforcers in the face of a two-year-old Islamist insurgency. But it all seemed like another effort to silence journalists with the sledgehammer of anti-terrorism. “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 Al Jazeera journalists to three years in prison for spreading false news and supporting a terrorist group, among other things. However this latest pardon may suggest a shift in the country’s recent rules of engagement- an end to a rather long ordeal.
Egypt’s government is one of several in Africa which has sought to respond to the rise in terror with new laws. Countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tunisia have all enacted anti-terror legislation in recent years, and Like Egypt, most of these laws have been controversial. While the authorities say they are aimed at neutralizing terrorists and their threats, many argue that the laws are a cover for human right 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 said would 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 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. According to Alexandra El Khazen, the aim of this is to prioritize the state’s narrative and to 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’s narrative.”
While the ordeal of the Al Jazeera journalists may 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.
The pardons were issued ahead of the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, and a day before Sisi plans to head to New York for the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly.
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