Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi on Sunday ratified an anti-terrorism law that stipulates exorbitant fines and possible suspension from employment for “false” reporting on militant attacks.
The government had sped up the passage of the law after the state prosecutor was assassinated in a car bombing in late June, followed by a large-scale extremist attack in the Sinai Peninsula days later.
The military was infuriated after media, quoting security officials, reported that dozens of troops had been killed in the Sinai attack. The military’s official death toll was 21 soldiers and scores of militants.
The controversial law, published in the government’s official gazette, sets a minimum fine of 200,000 Egyptian pounds (US$25,550) and a maximum of 500,000 Egyptian pounds for anyone who strays from government statements in publishing or spreading “false” reports on attacks or security operations against militants.
Critics say implementation of the steep fines might cause smaller newspapers to shut down and deter larger ones from independently reporting on attacks and operations against militants.
The government had initially proposed a jail sentence for convicted offenders, but backed down after a backlash from Egyptian media.
However, the ratified law added another clause allowing courts to “prevent the convicted from practicing the profession for a period of no more than one year if the crime violates the principles of the profession.”
It did not specifically mention journalism.
The law has raised fears that journalists could be put on trial for their reporting.
Three journalists had already been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for “defaming” the country and supporting the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The reporters with the Qatari al-Jazeera English TV channel won a retrial that is to conclude at the end of the month. Government officials said the law requires proof of intent to publish false reports to secure a conviction.
It also lays out the death penalty for those convicted of leading “terrorist groups” or financing attacks. Hundreds of Muslim extremists have been sentenced to death in mass trials since al-Sisi, a former army chief, overthrew Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Many of them have won retrials and Morsi, sentenced to death in June last year, has appealed his verdict.
At least 1,400 people, many of them supporters of Morsi, were killed in a crackdown on protests after his overthrow.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, once the most influential grassroots organization in the country, has been blacklisted as a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, extremists loyal to the Islamic State group have killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen in attacks mainly in Sinai, but also elsewhere in the north African country.
The group last week said it executed a Croatian hostage it had kidnapped west of the capital, almost a month after it bombed the Italian consulate in Cairo, killing a passerby.
Tomislav Salopek was working for a French oil company when he was abducted on a desert road outside Cairo.
The law passed on Sunday, which broadly defines terrorism, also seeks prison terms for those found guilty of “inciting, or prepared to incite, directly or indirectly, a terrorist act.”
Although criticized by rights activists, the law has met support from al-Sisi’s many supporters, who demand a firm hand to restore stability in the country of 87 million people.
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