Figures from previous regimes, political dissidents, people allegedly involved in terrorism cases: a wide range of actors have passed through Egypt’s courtrooms since the January 2011 revolution, and journalists have been there to make sure the wider public is as aware as possible of these cases.
In several instances – most recently a legal dispute over Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s maritime border demarcation agreement – courtrooms have transcended their place as litigation arenas to become central to a political issue garnering general public interest, a fact which spells out the importance of the press coverage of court sessions.
“The press has a mission: To enlighten the general public and inform them of courtroom proceedings,” Mohamed Basal, the editor of the judicial affairs section at the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, tells Mada Masr. “The intention is never to follow trending issues, but to provide information to the people regarding things that they truly care about, such as terrorism cases in particular,” says Basal.
Parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, however, has approved a motion to amend Article 268 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which will tighten access to court sessions.
The Criminal Procedure Code currently stipulates that court sessions should be open to the public. “The bench may […] decide that all or part [of a hearing] should be held in private […]. It may forbid the attendance of certain groups of people.” However, the amendment introduces a new provision, which makes open access to Egypt’s courtrooms an exception rather than a rule: “Session proceedings may not be relayed, nor may they be broadcast in any way without written permission from the president of the judicial circuit.”
The Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s approval of the amendment comes amid a wider discussion on changes to the Criminal Procedure Code, proposed by the government on December 4, 2017. The amendments will now be referred to Parliament’s General Assembly.
In a Facebook post, Basal criticized the amendment to Article 268, contending it will render the principle of judicial transparency empty and meaningless. By virtue of the Constitution, Basal argued, sessions should be open as a general rule.
According to Article 187 of the Constitution, “Court sessions shall be public, unless, for reasons of public order or morals, the bench deems them confidential. In all cases, verdicts shall be pronounced in open sessions.”
Basal asserts that no legal reporter can realistically submit written requests to receive permission to attend all the sessions they need to cover, rendering their attendance virtually impossible.
“How can one reporter possibly be expected to submit requests to multiple circuits at the same court to cover different sessions that are to be held on the same day?” Basal asks. “For instance, the court that convenes at the Police Academy encompasses five judicial circuits. Is it feasible for a reporter to submit requests to all five circuits? How long would that take, especially given that reporters are always met with tightened security measures when attempting to gain access to the Police Academy and, therefore, experience significant delays?”
The burden, however, would not only be placed on journalists, according to Basal. He argues that judges would be saddled with a new source of bureaucratic paperwork.
“The amendment to the article granting open access to court sessions would definitely curb serious coverage,” Basal adds.
But for proponents of the bill in Egypt’s media and journalists’ syndicates, the rationale behind the amendment rests on the country’s wider security concerns and the need for accuracy.
Hatem Zakareya, the Journalists Syndicate’s general secretary, called the change a temporary measure rather than a permanent ban. “In light of the circumstances that the country is going through, [the Journalists Syndicate] has decided to accept this situation on a temporary basis.”
According to Zakareya, the syndicate’s board discussed the amendments to Article 268 some time ago.
“Of course,” he adds, “open access is the default state. When security has been established and things have gone back to normal, sessions will be open again. This is only an interim period, one we hope will not be lengthy.”
The subordination of access to court hearings to security concerns gives Basal pause, however. “Based on what criteria would written permissions to cover hearings be granted or denied? Would security agencies and authorities have a say in who can and cannot cover them? This is something I would think the judicial authority is far too dignified to accept,” he asks. “Would reporters be subject to disciplinary actions should they report the proceedings of a case without permission? In such a case, the very act of press coverage would be deemed a crime, with no consideration for quality, impartiality or accuracy.”
While the Media Professionals Syndicate’s formation committee is slated to discuss the proposed amendment at its next meeting, Hamdy al-Kaneisy, the head of the committee, did share his personal stance. “I have followed the news on case proceedings, and I believe that some press coverage has had a negative impact,” he says. “Sometimes, inaccurate details are published, leading to the formation of public opinion that is not in line with the court’s opinion. This can carry some element of danger.”
“We are the first to defend the freedom of the press,” Kaneisy adds. “But we defend freedom that observes community values. The Media Code of Conduct, which the syndicate has written, requires media professionals to conduct coverage of court sessions in a manner that does not influence public opinion or the course of a case.”
However, there are several provisions that address concerns of inaccuracy and attempts to influence the outcomes of cases. Article 102 of the Penal Code, for instance, makes provision for a three-year prison term for anyone that publishes news that harms public security or the public good. Article 191 of the Penal Code sets a maximum prison term of one year for those that publish confidential court proceedings or inaccurate news concerning court proceedings.
“Publishing inaccurate information is already punishable by law, and so is influencing case proceedings,” Basal says. “The syndicate is also entitled to hold journalists accountable by administrative means, should it be proven that they have committed malpractice.”
Outside of formal legal measures, journalists often censor themselves when confronted with the risk of publishing inaccurate information, according to Basal, given that many have faced prosecution.
Rights lawyer Negad al-Borai argues that it is necessary to strike a balance between the judicial process and publishing in order to protect defendants’ rights. “Publishing is not always in the best interests of defendants, who are sometimes condemned and vilified in the media before a ruling has been issued by the court,” he says, pointing out that such practices may influence witnesses, the bench or the defendant’s legal position.
However, Borai argues that the proposed amendment to Article 268 is “somewhat excessive, as it does not specify what exactly should not be published or broadcast without written permission from a judicial circuit president.”
The lawyer also points to existing legal provisions that give judges the right to close court sessions and hand out sentences for tampering with witnesses, the bench or the defendants’ legal standing. “It is not about new laws or further amendments,” he says. “It is about how the law is implemented.”