There is anticipation in the press and human rights community in Egypt regarding the information circulation law, its clauses that are up for discussion and its potential approval by the Egyptian Parliament over the next few months.
The controversial draft law involves several problems related to freedom of opinion and expression, the extent of credibility of government data, the space for transparency available in obtaining information, the state’s policy regarding blocking, banning and prohibiting information and the related punishment in this regard.
The anticipation increases, as the presidential elections are about to take place in the country at the start of 2024, which gives the law great importance once it is issued. This is accompanied by fears of clauses being passed that will increase the restrictions of the harassment and repression during the rule of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime.
Article 68 of the Egyptian 2014 Constitution stipulates that “information, data, statistics and official documents are owned by the people. Disclosure thereof from various sources is a right guaranteed by the state to all citizens. The state shall provide and make them available to citizens with transparency. The law shall organise rules for obtaining such, rules of availability and confidentiality, rules for depositing and preserving such, and lodging complaints against refusals to grant access thereto. The law shall specify penalties for withholding information or deliberately providing false information. State institutions shall deposit official documents with the National Library and Archives once they are no longer in use. They shall also protect them, secure them from loss or damage, and restore and digitise them using all modern means and instruments, as per the law.”
However, for about ten years, the constitutional text remained suspended, ignored and absent, and its content was not placed in a legislative framework that guarantees its validity and obligates the authorities to regulate and legalise the issue of information circulation. Instead, it has become a network to hunt opponents, and a “charge” used to prosecute them under the pretext of “spreading false news.”
Matters are exacerbated by the decisions banning publication issued by the investigating authority, the lack of a timeframe for it, and the growing influence of what is known as “sovereign bodies”, which bring more restrictions on the circulation of information under the pretext of “confidentiality” or for matters affecting “national security.”
What is dangerous and disturbing is the exploitation of these loose terms related to imposing a barrier of secrecy on any treaties signed by the Egyptian regime, or sales deals by state-owned assets. It also hides cases of corruption and bribery, especially with the absence of a mechanism to challenge publication bans.
These restrictions are reinforced by the existence of a legislative system that is being employed negatively to obscure the policies of the ruling regime and suppress its opponents, through Law 175 of 2018 on combating information technology crimes, which includes aggressive provisions regarding the circulation of information via the Internet.
As for Law 180 of 2018 regulating the freedom of press and media, which restricts journalists’ right to circulate information if it is confidential in nature, which is a broad term that does not specify the degree of confidentiality of such information, and the period of time that it must remain confidential before being disclosed.
Likewise, the Publications Law 20 of 1936, which is in effect until now, is the legislative nucleus on which laws were built that restrict the circulation of information and publications and their display by imposing central control by the Ministry of Interior on publications and publishing.
The arsenal of Egyptian laws restricting the circulation of information include Law 356 of 1954 regarding the establishment of the Egyptian House of Documentation, Law 121 of 1975 on preserving the official documents of the state and regulating the method of their publication, Penal Code 58 of 1937 with its various amendments, and Civil Service Law 81 of 2016.
There are more than 11 laws that have articles that restrict and criminalise circulating information. This extends to restricting the work of journalists, whose job is mainly based on spreading information according to the Cario-based NGO Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
Given the thorny situation in this regard, concern is growing over the fear of passing the bill, which ignores many proposals and formulations submitted by civil society organisations over the past years.
Those interested in this matter say that there is an urgent need to redefine the term “national security”, which is a broad term that is interpreted according to the authority’s orders. It is an obstacle to the disclosure of information, which was indicated by the articles of the draft law when it permitted the refusal of a request to disclose information if such disclosure would “endanger national security.”
The matter includes data and information related to commercial and industrial secrets, and related to business negotiations, which may allow in the future, according to the project, blocking everything related to industrial and commercial activities and the parties to commercial negotiations conducted by the government.
In an article published in Al-Shorouk newspaper titled “The Right to Information or Withholding Information?”, Egyptian academic, Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the University of Cambridge, wrote sarcastically: “The expansion of the definition of national security made it possible for the security authorities to consider disclosing the number of cans of sardines displayed in the market as a threat to national security!”
Moreover, the draft law excludes the General and Military Intelligence services from being subject to it, which gives the two sovereign parties special immunity, at a time when they are assigned works that are not related to national security, and they have huge economic activities, such as managing companies, clubs, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and television channels. These matters should not be confidential according to human rights organisations.
The draft law allows the General and Military Intelligence Services to double the period of withholding “sensitive” information, which is a flexible term, from 25 years to 50, which is a long period that wears away the right to circulate information and may be a means to cover up serious crimes. This could lead to those directly responsible for the acts contained in those documents escaping.
The clauses of the project presented for discussion on the table of the national dialogue sessions are numerous and could increase the complications of the political scene in the country, which is actually looking for a breakthrough to expand the margin of freedoms. This was mentioned by the head of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, Khaled Al-Balshi, who sharply criticised the environment surrounding the draft law, saying: “The overwhelming majority of state institutions and their bureaucratic and administrative bodies believe that information should be withheld and should not be disclosed.”
Al-Balshi intensified his criticism during the National Dialogue sessions last June, stressing that “one cannot talk about a law for freedom of information circulation, while the public space is governed by legislation that blocks information and blocks its means of circulation, including press websites, and threatens those circulating information with prison.” He called for the abolition of freedom-depriving penalties in circulation of information cases, lifting the ban on blocked websites, amending the press and media regulation law, the cybercrime law, the pretrial detention articles in the Criminal Procedure Code, the release of imprisoned journalists and the release of prisoners of conscience.
An editorial official at an Egyptian newspaper who spoke to Middle East Monitor on condition of anonymity, said that the state’s policy of blocking hundreds of websites undermines the entire draft law, indicating that withholding information is the status quo, especially with regard to major projects, funds, special affairs, arms deals, the situation in Sinai, and the nature of the Egyptian role in Libya and Sudan.
Local human rights organisations consider it necessary not to exclude government agencies from applying the law, raise the level of credibility and confidence in official statements, introduce disciplinary actions for officials who do not disclose information, and publish all executive decisions related to the public interest in the Official Gazette and the Al-Waqa’i’ al-Misriyya newspaper.
The Egyptian authorities blocked two news websites, Masr 360 and the Fourth Estate, at the time discussions on the draft information circulation law were taking place, which raised doubts about the seriousness of the Sisi regime regarding the provision of the right to information and growing concern that a new means of repression is about to be passed under legal cover.