A decision by Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat to refer journalists to court on charges of publishing false information was deemed by other journalists as an intervention into their practice and an attempt to impose control on media freedom.
The Prosecutor General had referred Al-Bayan newspaper chairperson Nagiba al-Mahgoub, chief editor Ibrahim Aref and reporter Sarah Alaa Eddin to the Criminal Court. Mahgoub and Alaa Eddin were charged with spreading false news aimed at disrupting security and practicing journalism without being members of the Journalists Syndicate. Mahgoub was charged with hiring journalists who are not members of the syndicate, along with Aref. Aref was additionally accused of neglecting his responsibilities in overseeing what the newspaper publishes.
The General Prosecutor called on the Journalists’ Syndicate to limit the hiring of journalists who are not members of the syndicate and educating journalists on the importance of abiding by the practice’s code of ethics.
Al-Bayan had published a report saying that six prosecutors had been killed on the desert road, before quickly apologizing and taking down the news piece.
Hours after the Prosecutor General’s decision, the syndicate issued a statement saying that summoning Aref contradicts with Articles 68 and 69 of the law pertaining to interrogating journalists over publishing crimes.
“The syndicate maintains that the prosecutor’s swift action violates the law, especially since it prohibits detention pending investigation in publishing cases and obliges the prosecution to notify the syndicate before summoning any journalist,” the statement read.
“The Prosecutor General decided to act as the syndicate’s guardian and interfere in our work,” Khaled al-Balshy, board member of the Journalists’ Syndicate, told Mada Masr. “Control over the syndicate is rejected even by the General Prosecution, especially since it has made many mistakes over the last period, the most notable of which is charging members of the Popular Socialist Alliance with violating the Protest Law, of which they were acquitted.”
“Therefore, it’s best if the Prosecutor General let us handle our own syndicate’s issues,” he said.
Balshy cited Article 5 of the syndicate bylaws, which stipulates that those who wish to become syndicate members have to be professional journalists, and have already been working in the profession.
“This means that all syndicate members have worked as journalists for years before joining the syndicate,” he explained. “Anyone who applies for membership must have been working as a journalist already.”
Balshy mentioned that in his statement, the Prosecutor General said he treated members of the syndicate differently, “as if the dozens of violations committed against them and filed as complaints in his office have been looked into.”
Mahmoud Kamel, syndicate board member agreed with Balshy.
“The prosecution was better off referring me and other syndicate members for investigation on charges of bypassing the approval of the Arab Socialist Union to practice journalism, since it is stipulated in the syndicate bylaws,” he said.
Kamel said that the prosecutor had referenced old syndicate bylaws drafted over 45 years ago, overlooking the fact that there had been drastic changes with the appearance of partisan press, independent and online media.
Balshy said the Prosecutor General’s decision raises questions, explaining that according to the law the General Prosecution is obliged to notify the Journalists Syndicate before it interrogates any of its members, which was not the case.
“The journalists’ referral to court was swift, which we haven’t seen in other more pressing crimes,” he said, adding that the law prohibits detaining defendants in publishing crimes, which contradicts with the fact that they were released on bail.