It's no secret that the Egyptian regime has been cracking down on the free press and political activism for a while now - the incarceration of bloggers, the assaults on working journalists, the trial of the judges, arrests of Muslim Brothers and Kefaya activists. Yesterday Wa'il al-Abrashi, editor of Egypt's Sawt al-Umma, told al-Quds al-Arabi that he expected a guilty verdict in his trial over his paper's coverage of electoral fraud (he published a "black list" of judges alleged to have been on the take). Kefaya activists protested the trial forcefully, even as Egyptian security forces kept large numbers of people away from it. Reports that the court has decided to postpone a verdict until September may be a small victory for Egypt's press and for its activist movements. An acquittal which affirmed the rights of a free press to pursue investigative journalism about official corruption - that would be even better.
But then I was bowled over by this al-Jazeera show discussing a draft law in the Egyptian Parliament to "combat rumours." The law, proposed by a member of Mubarak's NDP, would create a special unit assigned to combat the spread of "false information". The Egyptian Press Syndicate sees this as criminalizing dissent, a fairly obvious and rather draconian step to clamp down on investigative journalism and any kind of critical reporting (remember - the trials of the Sawt al-Umma journalists and the two judges were both over their public discussion of electoral fraud). Egyptian NDP Parliamentarian Hisham Mustafa Khalil defended the draft law as necessary to protect national security and the Egyptian economy. He argued that the existing laws didn't suffice to protect against the grave threat posed by rumours. Gamal Fahmi of Egypt's Press Syndicate could barely contain himself, pointing out the obvious ways in which such a law would stifle all public discourse - since the government would be the one to decide what was or wasn't a "rumour." A constitutional law expert from Cairo described the draft law as completely unconstitutional.
As I've said many times, press freedom and freedom of speech are areas where the United States can and should take a strong and uncompromising stance. Newspapers like the daily al-Masri al-Youm and tabloids like al-Dustour and Sawt al-Umma which have been carving out space for dissent and contentious politics are the lifeblood of any real hope for democratic progress. Even if it can't realistically force a Mubarak to allow himself to be voted out of office, the US should be able to demand that its allies respect core values such as human rights and freedom of speech - especially at a time when Egypt's aid package is sort of, kind of, open for discussion. If Egypt actually passed a law like this, it would make a complete mockery of America's democracy talk - again.
UPDATE: I hear through the grapevine that Khalil has said that he's going to withdraw the "anti-rumor" bill, though he has not yet done so. Evidently he hadn't expected quite the uproar - score one for al-Jazeera, for doing the prime time show on the bill. Oh, and for Abu Aardvark if you like, as if I had anything to do with it at all....