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Last updated on 17.07.2018 at 09:22

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New cybercrime law: an assault on freedom of expression

New cybercrime law: an assault on freedom of expression

On 5th June 2018, Egypt's new Cybercrime law was officially ratified. As previously covered by CIVICUS Monitor, the new law has been widely condemned for granting the Egyptian authorities broad power to block and censor both online and print media. While the law has been lauded as a victory for freedom of expression by the Egyptian government, civil society groups have claimed it is an assault on freedom of expression which further strengthens the Egyptian authorities' stranglehold on critical dissent. In an already strained environment, the Egyptian authorities have blocked over 500 websites without legal basis over the past year.

Expression

On 5th June 2018, Egypt's new Cybercrime law was officially ratified. As previously covered by CIVICUS Monitor, the new law has been widely condemned for granting the Egyptian authorities broad power to block and censor both online and print media. While the law has been lauded as a victory for freedom of expression by the Egyptian government, civil society groups have claimed it is an assault on freedom of expression which further strengthens the Egyptian authorities' stranglehold on critical dissent. In an already strained environment, the Egyptian authorities have blocked over 500 websites without legal basis over the past year. 

Cementing Egyptian authorities' near-total control over the media, the new law imposes harsh penalties for violating the new legislation. In fact, the Cybercrime law contains 29 penalties for cyber crimes, ranging from three months to five years in prison and up to 20 million Egyptian Pounds (approx over 1 million USD) in fines for anyone deemed to be threatening national security or the economy. A number of freedom of expression CSOs have expressed fear that the new law will justify the muzzling and persecution of dissidents. Referring to the new bill, Khaled Elbalshy, a former Press Syndicate board member was quoted as commenting the bill was:

 “...a continuation of the context of repressing the press and confiscating and silencing speech...It’s an attempt to silence everyone who tries to speak, extending this control even to social media users.”

The harassment of Egyptian women human rights defenders (WHRDs) continues to be a key issue in Egypt. In particular, WHRDs who speak out against sexual harassment have found themselves targeted by authorities. In one example, dissident Amal Fathy was arrested after posting a video on social media highlighting her experiences of sexual harassment, while criticising the Egyptian government for their inaction on the harassment of women. Shortly after posting the video on 11th May 2018, Fathy was arrested by Egyptian security forces and charged with “disseminating a video on social media to publicly incite overthrowing the government" and "publishing a video that includes false news that could harm public peace” as well as “misusing telecommunication tools." Fathy is currently being held in pre-trial detention and awaiting her court hearing on 15th July 2018

In another example, prominent WHRD Mozn Hassan appeared at the court the on 18th June 2018. As we've previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Hassan, the Founder and Executive Director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, has been prosecuted by Egyptian authorities for allegedly receiving illicit foreign funds under the highly publicised case 173. In an illustration of the burden of repeated harassment against Nazra for Feminist Studies, the embattled CSO was forced to close its offices earlier in March 2018 after having its assets frozen. After her hearing, Hassan was granted release on bail amounting to 30,000 EGP (1,675 USD). In a statement, Nazra for Feminist Studies commented on the ongoing harassment of Hassan and WHRDs in Egypt, by saying: 

"Nazra for Feminist Studies condemns the charges directed against its Executive Director, which come in a context where civil society organizations’ work is restricted, and the public sphere is closed. Nazra for Feminist Studies further urges Egyptian Authorities to drop case 173, which seeks to punish WHRDs and HRDs for their legitimate work on feminist and human rights issues."

Foreign nationals have also been caught up in the Egyptian authorities' crackdown on WHRDs. On 7th July 2018, a Lebanese tourist was sentenced to eight years in prison by a Cairo court for posting a video on Facebook complaining about sexual harassment and conditions in Egypt. Mona Mazbouh was arrested early June at Cairo International Airport as she was on her way to board a flight out of the country. A video outlining the details of Mazbouh's case can be seen below.

In a separate incident, unrelated to the persecution of WHRDs, the editor-in-chief of Masr Al Arabia website was charged with spreading false news. Adel Sabry, a member of the Egyptian Press Syndicate, was arrested on the 3rd April 2018 after being accused of membership of the Muslim Brotherhood and inciting anti-government demonstrations. As the head of Masr Al Arabia, an independent news portal which reports on issues related to human rights and democracy, many fear that Sabry was targeted in reprisal to his work criticising the government. After three months in pre-trial detention, Sabry was released on bail on the 9th July 2018.

Other human rights defenders continue to languish in pre-trial detention, like the case of Egyptian blogger and journalist Wael Abbas. The internationally renowned journalist was arrested on 23rd May 2018, on suspicion of involvement with a banned organisation and publishing false news. Abbas gained international recognition for his work as an investigative journalist exposing Egyptian police brutality. Abbas drew attention to his arrest on social media, by simply posting "I am being detained". Reports note that he was arrested by heavily armed guards who did not produce a warrant for raiding his premises. In a joint letter written to European Parliament, a number of CSOs, including EuroMed Rights, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Front Line Defenders and Reporters Without Borders, called European officials to raise his case internationally and noted that:

"The Egyptian authorities have presented no evidence to support the charges made against Wael Abbas, who appears to be the victim of persecution for his independent and non-violent criticism of government policy. He has violated no law and should be immediately released and all charges dropped."

After his arrest, Abbas disappeared for 36 hours before being brought before prosecutors. Most recent reports from Egypt note that Abbas' health is rapidly deteriorating while in detention with serious concerns over whether he has been subject to ill-treatment. His pre-trial detention was extended on 4th July 2018.  

Association

Civil society in Egypt is currently regulated and governed by the provisions of the Law on Associations and Community Foundations of 2002.

Civil society in Egypt is currently regulated and governed by the provisions of the Law on Associations and Community Foundations of 2002. This legal framework has granted significant discretionary power to the state to disrupt or otherwise target civil society groups perceived as being aligned to the political opposition. In September 2016, Egypt’s Cabinet approved a new draft law to govern civil society organisations. If enacted, the draft law would grant the Egyptian state sweeping powers to deny organisations’ registration, constrain their operational activities, and regulate and restrict access to foreign funding sources.

In practice, human rights associations are extremely vulnerable to state harassment, and even forced closure. Throughout 2015, the government reportedly closed more than 480 NGOs because of their alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood group. On September 17th 2016, a criminal court issued an order to freeze the personal assets of five prominent civil society leaders, and ordered the freezing of assets held by three civil society groups.

Peaceful Assembly

Egyptian authorities continue to arbitrarily restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly under the 2013 Protest Law.

Egyptian authorities continue to arbitrarily restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly under the 2013 Protest Law. State security forces have used excessive, unnecessary and at times lethal force to disperse “unauthorised” demonstrations and other public gatherings, resulting in deaths and serious injuries.There has been no credible investigation or criminal accountability for the killing of at least 817 protesters in Cairo’s Rab’a al-Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013.

Security forces shot and killed protester Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh on 24th January 2015 during a demonstration in central Cairo. At least 27 people died in protest-related violence between 23rd and 26th January 2015. In April 2016, security forces used tear gas to shut down small protests against President Sisi.

Expression

Journalists reporting on sensitive political topics, or working for outlets critical of state authorities are routinely prosecuted on politically motivated charges.

Journalists reporting on sensitive political topics, or working for outlets critical of state authorities are routinely prosecuted on politically motivated charges. At the end of 2015, 23 journalists remained imprisoned in Egypt, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Throughout 2016, many journalists have been arrested, prosecuted, or jailed, including human rights defender and press freedom advocate Gamal Eid, chair of the Journalists Syndicate Yehia Qallash, and photographer Ali Abdeen.