Viewpoints that allegedly defend freedom of expression and creativity are currently the rage all over the media and social media in Egypt. They say that freedoms are being dealt a vicious blow. They protest against the questioning of intellectuals or writers on the thought or creative writings they publish. They remind that the Constitution secures all forms of freedom of expression, and grants immunity to intellectuals, writers and innovators against reprisal vis-à-vis their thought or opinion.
True, the Constitution upholds freedom of thought, opinion, and expression. Article 65 stipulates that: “Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. Every person has the right to express his/her opinion verbally, in writing, through images or photographs, or through any other means of expression and publication”.
Article 67 declares: “Freedom of artistic and literary creativity is guaranteed. The State is committed to promote art and literature, sponsor creators and protect their creations, and provide the necessary means to achieve this. No lawsuit may be initiated or filed to suspend or confiscate any artistic, literary, or intellectual work, or against their creators except through the public prosecution. No freedom-restricting penalty may be imposed for crimes committed on account of the public nature of artistic, literary, or intellectual product. In case of crimes relating to the incitement of violence, discrimination between citizens, or libelling the honour of individuals, the law determines the penalties. In such cases the court may oblige, according to the law, the guilty party to pay punitive compensation to the party hurt by the crime, in addition to the original compensation for the damages incurred on account of the crime.”
A careful, thorough reading of the Constitution does not essentially lead one to lament the allegedly ongoing vicious attack against freedom of expression and creativity. Let me point out, however, that I do not in this context mean the recent ‘contempt of religion’ charges against a number of public figures and intellectuals. This is an issue I have tackled, and called on the House of Representatives to amend or altogether annul the Contempt of Religion Law. [http://en.wataninet.com/opinion/editorial/the-challenge-before-parliament/15681/] I explained that the Contempt of Religion Law was enacted to convict the disdain of another’s religion and preserve social peace, but is now being exploited to chase those who use critical thinking or strive to reform erroneous religious practices.
My focus today will be on cases in which individuals were convicted for having ridden a public media venue to shock unsuspecting, uninviting users with expression that offended public decency or that indiscriminately smeared a full sector of the community.
The first case concerns the novel Istikhdaam al-Hayat (Using Life) by Ahmed Nagy, printed in August 2014 by the weeklyAkhbar al-Adab, published by the State-owned Akhbar al-Youm. Both Nagy and Tarek al-Taher, editor-in-chief of Akhbar Al-Adab, were tried for public indecency and, according to the public prosecutor: “publishing a flagrant erotic article in which the writer wrote a text that spewed sexual lust and transient pleasures, using his mind and pen to violate public decency and good morals, inciting promiscuity”. The court handed Nagy a two-year prison sentence, and ordered Taher to pay a EGP10,000-fine.
The second case involves Taymour al-Sobky, a blogger and admin of the Facebook page, “Diary of a suffering man”, which has over 1 million followers. Hosted by CBC’s Khairy Ramadan last December in his talk show Momkin (Possible), Sobky alleged that one-third of Egypt’s married women in rural areas are not faithful to their husbands. Sobky is currently facing charges of slandering Egyptian women and smearing their honour, and propagating false material that disturbs public peace and harms public interest. The TV show that hosted him has been suspended for two weeks.
Nagy’s ruling and Taymour’s trial aroused controversy and raised the antagonism of some, even though the thought and opinion overtly expressed by both have shocked readers and viewers. They displayed little or no consideration to public morals, societal mores, nor the honour and dignity of a major sector of the community.
To those who lament the ‘vicious attack’ on freedom of expression, let me explain that there is a fundamental difference between expressing thought or opinion through a venue known for a specific outlook and sought by recipients well aware of that outlook, and a venue that caters to the general public. There is a major difference between publishing Istikhdaam al-Hayat in a book or a specialised periodical, and printing the blatantly graphic chapter five of the novel on the pages of a general-public newspaper. Likewise, Sobky could have very well sounded his opinion on Egyptian women in a seminar or private gathering, rather than airing it live on TV. In case of both Nagy and Sobky, the privacy of readers and viewers was harshly violated; no respect was accorded to their various ages, genders, or cultural backdrops.
Even in the West where freedoms reign supreme, regulations and restrictions govern the circulation of material that is not desired to reach about everyone. Newspaper stands and convenience stores include sections for pornographic publications hidden behind dark covers, to prevent such material from falling in the hands of children or those who may unwittingly buy them. Bookstores offer a description of the books and papers they offer, in order not to impose on buyers thought they do not approve of. Publications that cater to the general public do not intrude on the privacy of the recipient; otherwise they are held accountable by the law.
We need to sort out this predicament in order to protect our community. I am against restricting freedom of expression, and I do not sympathise with thwarting free opinion or vision. But I also believe in regulations to ensure that free thought and opinion do not, uninvited, shatter the freedom and dignity of recipients.
6 March 2016