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Egypt anti-terror law fines journalists for 'false' reporting

The law originally stipulated jail terms for journalists who contradict state death tolls from militant attacks but was changed after outcry
The contentious new law was approved by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sunday (AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified on Sunday an anti-terrorism law which stipulates exorbitant fines, and possible suspension from employment, for "false" reporting on militant attacks.

The government had sped up the passage of the law after the state prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, was assassinated in a car bombing in late June, followed by a large-scale militant attack in the Sinai Peninsula days later. 

The military was infuriated after media, quoting security officials, reported that dozens of troops had been killed in the Sinai attack. The military's official death toll was 21 soldiers and scores of militants.

The controversial law, published in the government's official newspaper, sets a minimum fine of around $25,000 and a maximum of over $63,000 for anyone who strays from government statements in publishing or spreading "false" reports about attacks or security operations against militants.

Critics say the steep fines may shut down smaller newspapers, and deter larger ones from independently reporting on attacks and operations against militants.

The government had initially proposed a jail sentence for offenders, but backed down after a backlash from Egyptian media.

The ratified law, however, added another clause allowing courts to "prevent the convicted from practising the profession for a period of no more than one year, if the crime violates the principles of the profession”.

It did not specifically mention journalism.

Journalists jailed

The law has raised fears that more journalists could be put on trial for their reporting.

Prior to the new law, journalists had already been sentenced for their work, including three given to up to 10 years in prison for "defaming" the country and supporting the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The reporters with the Qatari Al-Jazeera English channel won a retrial that will conclude at the end of the month. 

Government officials say the law requires proof of intent to publish false reports to secure a conviction.

It also lays out the death penalty for those convicted of leading "terrorist groups" or financing attacks. 

Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death in mass trials since Sisi, a former army chief, overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

Many of them have won retrials, and Morsi himself, sentenced to death last June, has appealed his verdict.

At least 1,400 people, many of them supporters of Morsi, were killed in a crackdown on protests after his overthrow.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement has been blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.

Meanwhile militants loyal to the Islamic State group have killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen in attacks mainly in Sinai, but also elsewhere in the North African country.

The group last week said it had executed a Croatian hostage kidnapped just west of the capital, almost a month after it bombed the Italian consulate in Cairo, killing a passerby.

Tomislav Salopek was working for a French oil company when he was abducted on a desert road outside Cairo.

The law passed on Sunday, which broadly defines terrorism, also seeks prison terms for those found guilty of "inciting, or prepared to incite, directly or indirectly, a terrorist act".

Though criticised by rights activists, the law has met support from Sisi's many supporters who demand a firm hand to restore stability in the country of 87 million people.