President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signed into law on Sunday new anti-terrorism legislation that was drafted last month following the assassination of General Prosecutor Hesham Barakat.
Ostensibly billed to fight Islamist militants, the law gives the courts and security forces new powers to use against suspects implicated in terrorism-related crimes, as well as against journalists reporting on terrorist attacks.
Key features of the new law include imposing the death penalty for anyone convicted of establishing or leading a “terrorist group,” and five to seven years in prison for anyone propagating ideas and beliefs calling for the use of violence via social media or other mediums.
The law also grants non-security force officials with the power of arrest, and the power to detain and interrogate a terrorist suspect for up to 24 hours without obtaining prior authorization from a prosecutor beforehand.
Article 53 grants the president the ability to impose curfew and to isolate areas for up to six months, subject to parliamentary approval.
Article 46 allows for the public prosecution or the special investigative authority to monitor almost all forms of communication for up to 30 days in “cases related to terrorism crimes.” This includes recording all forms of telecommunications, photographing private places, and monitoring both electronic and written communication as well as social media. The monitoring period can be extended by up to two more 30-day periods, allowing the public prosecution to monitor communications for up to three months.
Another controversial aspect of the law forbids journalists from contradicting official accounts of terrorist attacks. In the draft version of the law, Article 33 had imposed a two-year prison sentence for this violation. In the ratified version, that provision was replaced with Article 35, which reduces the sentence to a LE200,000-500,000 fine for media outlets publishing material contradicting state accounts of security operations.
The article came to be included in the law in the wake of deadly attacks that swept Sinai at the beginning of July. The state estimated that 17 members of the security forces were killed in the attack, while some foreign news agencies put that number at 60–70.
A new state-operated “media ethics news site,” Fact Check Egypt (FCE), will support the law by “fact checking” news. FCE claims this is important, as “irresponsible reports can result in mothers losing sons, unemployment and impoverishing the needy.”
The anti-terrorism law has provoked controversy since its announcement, largely due to concerns that it could be used to limit press freedoms and crush political dissent.
It was greeted by widespread protests from the Journalists Syndicate, which claimed the law impedes journalists’ ability to collect information from different sources. The syndicate released a statement in July saying it would not be satisfied until the article was “annulled, not amended.”
London-based rights group Amnesty International called the law “draconian,” and said that it would “effectively place a gag order on journalists attempting to independently report facts as they perceive them.” The group claimed the law also has “the potential to criminalize the legitimate exercise of human rights.”