Defama­tion and devel­op­ment in the Arab world

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Egypt’s gov­ern­ment is per­haps the big­gest abuser of defama­tion and blas­phemy laws to sup­press dif­fer­ing views. In par­tic­u­lar, the Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties brazenly use Ar­ti­cle 98(f) of the Egyp­tian Pe­nal Code – which pro­hibits cit­i­zens from de­fam­ing a “heav­enly re­li­gion,” in­cit­ing sec­tar­ian strife, or in­sult­ing Is­lam – to de­tain, pros­e­cute, and im­prison mem­bers of non-ma­jor­ity re­li­gious groups, es­pe­cially Chris­tians.

All that is needed is a vague claim that their ac­tiv­i­ties are jeop­ar­dis­ing “com­mu­nal har­mony.”

More­over, the writer Ahmed Naji was re­cently handed a two-year prison sen­tence for vi­o­lat­ing “pub­lic mod­esty,” by pub­lish­ing a sex­u­ally ex­plicit ex­cerpt from his novel. This came just a month af­ter the au­thor Fatma Naoot ap­pealed the three-year sen­tence she re­ceived when a Face­book post crit­i­ciz­ing the slaugh­ter of an­i­mals for a Mus­lim feast led to a guilty ver­dict for “con­tempt for Is­lam.” The list goes on.

Omi­nously, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port by the US Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom, blas­phemy cases have been on the rise since 2011. In Jan­uary 2015, Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fatah al-Sisi is­sued a de­cree that per­mits the gov­ern­ment to ban any for­eign pub­li­ca­tions it deems of­fen­sive to re­li­gion, thereby ex­pand­ing the gov­ern­ment’s al­ready sig­nif­i­cant cen­sor­ship pow­ers and in­creas­ing pres­sure on jour­nal­ists fur­ther.

The situation is not much bet­ter in Tu­nisia, where, ac­cord­ing to Free­dom House’s 2015 re­port, “crim­i­nal defama­tion re­mains one of the big­gest ob­sta­cles to in­de­pen­dent re­port­ing.” More­over, many are con­cerned that the coun­try’s newly es­tab­lished cy­ber-crime in­ves­tiga­tive agency will carry out “unchecked gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance on Tu­nisian cit­i­zens,” as oc­curred un­der for­mer Pres­i­dent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tion.

Jor­dan has also ratch­eted up its at­tempts to limit free ex­pres­sion, with a June 2015 amend­ment to its cy­ber-crime law al­low­ing the at­tor­ney-general to de­tain, with­out a court or­der, any­one deemed to have used the In­ter­net for defama­tion. While Jor­dan’s Press and Pub­li­ca­tions Law pro­hibits the ar­rest of jour­nal­ists for opin­ions ex­pressed in print, jour­nal­ists are now fair game if those opin­ions ap­pear on­line. And, in­deed, charges have al­ready been brought against sev­eral.

Among the highest-pro­file defama­tion-re­lated cases in the Mid­dle East today is that in­volv­ing Na­jat Abu Bakr, a mem­ber of Pales­tine’s par­lia­ment who has been sum­moned for in­ter­ro­ga­tion by the at­tor­ney-general af­ter lev­el­ing cor­rup­tion ac­cu­sa­tions against Hus­sein al-Araj, a cab­i­net min­is­ter with close ties with Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas. The move seems also to be mo­ti­vated by Bakr’s sup­port for a teacher’s strike in the West Bank – an em­bar­rass­ment to the Ab­bas gov­ern­ment.

Though Pales­tine’s at­tor­ney-general is al­lowed, un­der ex­ist­ing defama­tion leg­is­la­tion, to hold a per­son for 48 hours of ques­tion­ing, hu­man-rights groups have con­demned the move. Bakr, for her part, re­fused the or­der, and staged a sitin at the par­lia­ment build­ing. Pales­tinian se­cu­rity forces sur­rounded the build­ing, but did not at­tempt to ar­rest her.

The in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion – and in­creas­ingly broad ap­pli­ca­tion – of defama­tion laws in the Mid­dle East and North Africa rep­re­sents a dan­ger­ous trend, one that is fuel­ing an in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful back­lash from civil-so­ci­ety groups. Naji’s case, for ex­am­ple, spurred Egyp­tian writ­ers, artists, and film­mak­ers to launch a pub­lic cam­paign for greater free­dom of cre­ativ­ity and ex­pres­sion.

Fur­ther­more, the for­mer Google ex­ec­u­tive Wael Ghonim, who was ac­tive in the coun­try’s 2011 up­ris­ing, pub­licly crit­i­cised the ver­dict against Naji. And sev­eral state-owned artis­tic pub­li­ca­tions were is­sued with their front pages ei­ther de­pict­ing Naji or in­clud­ing just a few words ex­press­ing sup­port for free speech, with the rest of the page left blank.

In Jor­dan, a coali­tion led by the Cen­ter for De­fend­ing Free­dom of Jour­nal­ists has launched a new cam­paign, “Talk is Not a Crime,” to raise aware­ness about de­clin­ing me­dia free­dom.

And in Pales­tine, protests against the use of defama­tion laws to im­prison po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents have gained trac­tion, with pop­u­lar sup­port for Bakr hav­ing played a key role in spurring the agree­ment that al­lowed her to re­turn to her house in Nablus with­out be­ing ar­rested or called in for ques­tion­ing.

Out­cries against in­di­vid­ual cases can go only so far. Cam­paigns must – and, in­creas­ingly, do – fo­cus on gen­uine changes to defama­tion laws, to en­sure that gov­ern­ments can­not use them to sti­fle dis­sent. The key will be to re­move the crim­i­nal el­e­ment from defama­tion cases, and thus the prospect of im­pris­on­ment, and in­stead pros­e­cute them as civil cases, with those found guilty of defama­tion be­ing sub­ject to rea­son­able fines.

Com­pelling law­mak­ers to de­crim­i­nalise defama­tion will not be easy. But with a con­certed ef­fort from all rel­e­vant par­ties – es­pe­cially the me­dia, civil so­ci­ety, and hu­man-rights ac­tivists – plus the sup­port of re­gional and in­ter­na­tional ac­tors, it is pos­si­ble. Given the crit­i­cal im­por­tance of free speech to eco­nomic and so­cial progress, there is no time to waste.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus

© PressReader. All rights reserved.