Egypt signals changes to anti-terror law after media backlash
CAIRO - Egypt's government on Wednesday signalled it could amend a draft of a controversial anti-terror law that proposes jailing reporters for contradicting official statements, with the justice minister conceding media should have been consulted.
The government last week approved the law, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi must ratify, but the draft has come under attack from the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate and political parties over a controversial article that restricts press freedoms.
Article 33 of the draft stipulates a minimum two-year prison sentence for anyone who reports details of militant attacks that contradict official statements.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab and several ministers met a group of senior editors to contain the backlash.
Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind said during the meeting that the journalists' syndicate should have been consulted before formulating the draft.
"The press syndicate should have been consulted about this law, and the law should have been proposed for public debate," a cabinet statement quoted Zind as saying.
The newspaper editors and the syndicate demanded the article be removed from the anti-terrorism draft law.
"We proposed that it be in a different law and its wording should be different. There are also other articles in that law that need rephrasing," syndicate chief Yehia Qalash told AFP.
"The government has the intention to amend Article 33. We will present a different phrasing for this article and others later tonight."
Government spokesman Hossam al-Qawish indicated that changes could be expected.
"The government is keen to review article 33 in line with opinions" that were being proposed, Qawish told private television channel CBC Extra.
Egypt's official National Council for Human Rights also criticised the draft law, saying certain clauses violated the constitution. It further demanded that the law be valid for a specific time frame.
Zind had told AFP earlier that Article 33 was in response to coverage of an attack on soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula.
The military said 21 soldiers were killed in the 1 July attack, after foreign and local media reported much higher figures given by security sources.
The attacks came two days after State Prosecutor Hisham Barakat was killed in a car bombing in Cairo, prompting Sisi to demand tougher laws and faster trials for alleged militants.
Dia Rashwan, a former head of the journalists' syndicate, told AFP he had proposed to the cabinet fines instead of prison sentences for offenders.
His proposal would require courts to prove intent and malice in publishing "false" news on militant attacks, he said.
"People I have spoken to on many levels (in the government) have expressed a willingness to resolve the matter," he said.
Egypt has been fighting an insurgency in Sinai since the army, then led by Sisi, overthrew the country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in a 2013 coup.
The attacks have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, while more than 1,400 people, mostly Morsi supporters, have been killed in a crackdown on protests.