Critics say proposed amendments to country's criminal code under discussion would make court reporting 'impossible to carry out'
Egyptian politicians are paving the way to all but ban journalists and the public from attending court sessions and require that they obtain permission to report on any proceedings they are permitted to observe.
On Monday, the Egyptian parliament's legislative and constitutional affairs committee agreed on a motion for the most comprehensive set of changes to the criminal procedure code since it was issued in 1950.
If passed, the amendment would make open access to Egyptian courtrooms, now open to the public and the press, an exception rather than a rule.
"Session proceedings may not be relayed, nor may they be broadcast in any way without written permission from the president of the head of the judicial chamber," according to the proposed amendment.
In addition, the legislation would prohibit the reporting of any information related to cases in which the accused are being prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Critics of the changes say press access and coverage has been hampered for years across the country, but the amendment would legalise the crackdown.
“The press is meant to enlighten the public, inform them about courtroom proceedings, and provide them with information about things that they truly care about, such as terrorism cases," Mohamed Basal, editor of the judicial affairs section of Shorouk newspaper, wrote on Facebook earlier this month.
If passed, he wrote, a journalist's role "will become impossible to carry out".
The motion, which is yet to be discussed in parliament, has sparked controversy among journalists and lawyers since it was first launched in late November.
Not only will journalists be hindered from informing the public about court proceedings, but the principle of judicial transparency will be rendered meaningless, Basal wrote on Facebook.
“The chamber will have complete control over whether or not a hearing can be covered," he wrote.
'The chamber will have complete control over whether or not a hearing can be covered. This simply means that the principle of transparency will be empty words'- Mohamed Basal, Shorouk newspaper
"This simply means that the principle of transparency will be empty words. Legal reporters should try and find a different source to cover court proceedings."
According to Basal, it would be virtually impossible for a journalist to acquire the written authorisation required under the proposed legislation every time they need to cover a court hearing.
Egyptian constitutional lawyer Mohamed Saleh said the amendments may contravene constitutional rights.
In an article published on Monday in the Legal Agenda, an online magazine discussing legal issues, Saleh wrote: "The amendment... contravenes article 187 of the constitution, which states that court hearings must be public unless the court decides otherwise in order to observe public order or morals. This makes transparency the norm and secrecy an exception."
Egyptian defendants wait behind bars for the verdict in their retrial over a 2012 stadium riot in the canal city of Port Said on 23 August 2011 (AFP)
But for supporters of the bill, the rationale behind the amendment rests on the country’s wider security concerns and the need for accuracy.
The Journalists' Syndicate’s general secretary Hatem Zakareya told Mada Masr that his organisation would tolerate the changes in the short term.
“In light of the circumstances that the country is going through, [the Journalists' Syndicate] has decided to accept this situation on a temporary basis," Zakareya said.
“When security has been established and things have gone back to normal, sessions will be open again. This is only an interim period, one we hope will not be lengthy."
For Hamdy al-Kaneisy, head of the board of the Media Professionals' Syndicate, the move is a necessary measure at this time.
“Sometimes inaccurate details are published... [which] can be dangerous,” he told Mada Masr. “We are the first to defend the freedom of the press. But we defend freedom that observes community values."
'The amendment contravenes article 187 of the constitution, which states that court hearings must be public unless the court decides otherwise. This makes transparency the norm and secrecy an exception'- Mohamed Saleh, Egyptian lawyer
But Basal, the Shorouk editor, disagreed saying there are already measures in place to curtail inaccurate reporting.
“Publishing inaccurate information is already punishable by law, and so is influencing case proceedings,” he told Mada Masr. “The syndicate is also entitled to hold journalists accountable by administrative means, should it be proven that they have committed malpractice."
Articles 191 and 102 of the Egyptian penal code hand down prison sentences for journalists who publish inaccurate information or details deemed confidential to court proceedings or harmful to public security.
According to Basal, the move is essentially an attempt legalise a practice that has become widespread in Egypt in recent years.
Egyptian lawyer Saleh agrees: "This amendment comes at a time where the judiciary has continuously banned the press from covering most cases. A ban is always expected once an important case has been announced."