CAIRO (AFP) â€” Hundreds of journalists demonstrated Sunday outside the Egyptian parliament where a draft bill allowing jail sentences for journalists and preventing them from investigating fraud was being debated.
Journalists, deputies opposing the bill and members of the opposition group Kefaya (Enough), gathered outside the main entrance of the parliament building in downtown Cairo holding banners reading “For the sake of freedom of opinion, wake up Egypt.”
“This protest is a clear message to parliament to refuse the draft bill which restricts freedom instead of removing constraints,” Gamal Fahmy, a prominent member of the journalists’ syndicate told AFP during the protest.
The law, which leaves prison sentences to judges’ discretion rather than abolishing them altogether, goes against promises made by President Hosni Mubarak during last year’s election campaign to abolish jail sentences for journalists.
A particularly controversial article states that journalists who discuss the private property or funds of public figures risk imprisonment.
The law is widely expected to pass as it is supported by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) which holds a tight grip on parliament, the vast majority of the deputies belonging to the NDP.
Journalists have threatened to step up their protest if the law is approved.
“If the majority passes the draft bill, we will not abide by it and if they (the authorities) have the courage, let them imprison all of us,” said Fahmy.
“It is up to the members of parliament to respond to the demand for the protection of freedom of opinion,” said Yehya Qallash, secretary general of the journalists’ syndicate. “If not, we will take further steps.”
As part of the protest, some two dozen independent and opposition newspapers did not publish their Sunday edition.
Only state-owned papers and one independent newspaper close to the regime could be seen on Cairo newsstands.
The journalists’ syndicate as well as SMS messages which have been circulating for two days have called on Egyptians not to buy state-owned papers on Sunday.
An Arab human rights organisation based in Cairo also denounced the law.
“The Egyptian president’s promise made two years ago to eliminate imprisonment of journalists in press offences was reduced to nominal amendments that consolidate punishment of any journalist or writer who tackles issues of corruption and financial integrity of any official,” said the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo) in a statement.
“This consolidates the imprisonment of journalists and ignores Egypt’s terrible position with regards to the list of countries fighting corruption,” the statement continued.
“Egyptian society should unite to support the press syndicate in its demand to protect journalists and should unite against the government’s insistence to violate press freedom, which is a violation of the right of the society as a whole,” said HRInfo executive director, Gamal Eid.
The journalists’ syndicate has threatened to issue a “black list” of members of parliament planning to vote in favour of the law, calling them “enemies of press freedom.”
On June 26, the editor and a journalist from the independent Al Dustour were each sentenced to a year in jail for reporting on a complaint accusing Mubarak of misusing government money.
Three other Egyptian journalists appeared before a criminal court last month for denouncing alleged state-sponsored fraud during the 2005 parliamentary elections.Â