Egypt tightens grip on media with new bill

This file photo taken on March 22, 2018 shows apps for WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks on a smartphone. (AFP)
Updated 21 July 2018
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Egypt tightens grip on media with new bill

  • Social media accounts and blogs with more than 5,000 followers on sites such as Twitter and Facebook will be treated as media outlets
  • The media council will supervise the law and take action against violations

CAIRO: A controversial law passed by Egypt’s Parliament on Monday classifies social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers as media outlets, exposing them to the country’s harsh regulations for journalists.
Under the new law, social media users with a large following can be subject to prosecution for spreading false news or inciting crime.
The law prohibits the establishment of websites without first obtaining a license from the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, a government body with authority to legally suspend or block websites in violation of the country’s strict laws, and penalize editors with hefty fines.
Journalists are also forbidden from filming in prohibited areas, according to the new law.
While the bill stipulates that its provisions will apply to press and media organizations, Article 19 states that personal websites, blogs or social media accounts with no ties to the press are also liable to prosecution and must be licensed by the Supreme Council.
“That power of interpretation has been a powerful legal and executive tool used to justify excessive aggressive and exceptional measures to go after journalists,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Reuters this week.
The law’s vague language gives authorities even more power to control the media, he said.
Egypt has faced mounting criticism in recent years for its draconian laws regarding the press and freedom of expression, in addition to widespread human rights violations.
A 2015 counterterrorism law, enacted by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, gave the government sweeping powers over the regime’s critics under the guise of protecting the nation. The law allows prosecutors to detain suspects without judicial review, and order surveillance of suspected individuals or organizations without the need for a court order.
With a broad definition of what constitutes a terrorist act, the law creates a vague framework under which the government can arbitrarily detain citizens and implement punishments as severe as the death penalty. The law also requires journalists in Egypt to report only the official state version of any news related to national security.
In May 2017, the Egyptian government blocked about 20 websites affiliated with local and international news outlets, including independent news sites such as Mada Masr and Daily News Egypt, as well as blogs criticizing the regime.
A few months later, the government’s efforts were expanded to include sites affiliated with human rights groups and organizations. This included websites of local NGOs as well as international organizations like Human Rights Watch.
More than 500 websites are now blocked in Egypt, including VPN and proxy sites such as Tor and TunnelBear that allow Egyptians to circumvent online censorship. No official government body has claimed responsibility for blocking the websites.
According to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, El-Sisi’s repressive legislation offers the government “near-absolute impunity for abuses by security forces under the pretext of fighting terrorism.”
The report goes on to explain that in addition to numerous extrajudicial killings, hundreds have been placed on terrorism lists without due process with many more civilians being sent to military trials with charges of political dissent.
“The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an independent rights group, said that as of mid-August, 378 people had disappeared over the previous 12 months and the whereabouts of at least 87 remained unknown. These numbers do not include those who were found killed after having gone missing,” the report said.
Reporters Without Borders called Egypt “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists” and said that many reporters have spent years in prison without being formally charged.
“The Internet is the only place left where independently reported news and information can circulate, but more than 400 websites have been blocked since the summer of 2017 and more people are being arrested because of their social network posts,” it said.


Sri Lanka abusing UN law to make arrests: rights group

Updated 17 June 2019
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Sri Lanka abusing UN law to make arrests: rights group

  • Police attempted to arrest a journalist for his writing on anti-Muslim riots and Buddhist extremists using the UN-backed law
  • Police have also drawn criticism over the detention of a Muslim woman during anti-Muslim riots last month

COLOMBO: Media activists on Monday accused Sri Lankan police of using a UN convention on hate speech to crack down on media freedom and the country’s Muslim minority.
The Free Media Movement rights group said the police Special Task Force (STF) attempted to arrest a respected journalist for his writing on anti-Muslim riots and Buddhist extremists using the UN-backed law.
The STF told a magistrate on Friday they were pursuing freelance writer Kusal Perera under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act.
“The Free Media Movement strongly condemns the attempts to pursue legal action under the provisions of the ICCPR Act and urges all responsible stakeholders to draw their attention to avoid using the law unfairly,” the group said.
Police have also drawn criticism over the detention of a Muslim woman during anti-Muslim riots last month. She was wearing a T-shirt with a print of a ship’s steering wheel which police mistook for the Dharma Chakra, a Buddhist symbol.
The woman was held in remand custody for three weeks before a senior police officer intervened to press for her release.
Award winning author and poet Shakthika Sathkumara has been held since April under the ICCPR act for his work hinting at homosexuality among the Buddhist clergy.
A senior police source told AFP separate investigations had been launched into the three cases.
“We feel that police exceeded their authority in using the ICCPR and we will take action against those responsible,” the officer said, asking not to be named.
The leftist People’s Liberation Front (JVP) party said police have arbitrarily detained several Muslim men and women since the Easter Sunday attacks that killed 258 people.
The suicide bombings on three churches and three hotels were blamed on local Muslim militants.
Anti-Muslim riots after the April 21 bombings left one Muslim man dead and hundreds of Muslim-owned businesses, homes, vehicles and mosques wrecked.
Sri Lankan authorities are very sensitive to perceived insults to Buddhism, the majority religion.
However Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court in 2017 awarded 900,000 rupees ($5,000) in damages to a woman who police detained for four days for having a Buddha tattooed on her arm.