Egyptians protest draft constitution
The newspapers that shut down for the day said their action was aimed specifically at the draft constitution's failure to protect free expression.
"You are reading this message because Egypt Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity," a short statement set against a black background declared yesterday on the website of Egypt Independent, the English-language sister publication of the country's largest independent daily, Al Masry Al Youm. That paper and 10 others did not publish.
Among other criticisms, analysts and human rights groups say the draft constitution all but eviscerates its provisions for freedom of expression, in part by also expressly prohibiting "insults" to any living individual or to religious "prophets".
The draft charter also stipulates that a purpose of the news media is to uphold public morality and the "true nature of the Egyptian family," and specifies that government authorisation may be required to operate a television station or a website.
"The protection of freedom of expression is fatally undermined by all the provisions that limit it," said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has studied the text. "On paper, they have not protected freedom of expression.
It is designed to let the government limit those rights on the basis of 'morality' or the vague concept of 'insult."'
Critics say the push to ratify the draft coincides with a cascade of accusations from Egypt's new Islamist leaders that elements of the media are biased against them, and even that they are part of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy to thwart the transition to democracy rather than let Islamists win.
As part of a decree expanding his own powers until the passage of the constitution, Mr Morsi recently passed a law for "protection of the revolution" that covered crimes including insults to the president, the Parliament or the courts. And he created a specially designated circuit within the court system to try those suspected of violating the law, along with those accused of abuses against civilians under the Mubarak government.
Mr Morsi's justice minister has already initiated investigations against at least three journalists for insulting the judiciary - the branch of government with the most crucial role in protecting the free press, said Morayef of Human Rights Watch.
"You are calling insulting the authorities a crime against the revolution?" she said. "That is authoritarianism. That is a lack of understanding of what 'free expression' means."
Advisers to Mr Morsi counter that the draft constitution expands on the negligible protections of free expression that prevailed under Mubarak.
They noted that in one of his few previous presidential decrees, Mr Morsi acted to support media freedom. In the Mubarak era, insulting the president was a crime punishable by imprisonment. But after a newspaper editor was jailed for that offence in late August, Mr Morsi changed the law to forbid incarceration until a court verdict, allowing the imprisoned journalist, Islam Afifi of Al Dustour, to go free without spending even a night behind bars.
The website of the state newspaper Al Ahram yesterday reported that at least 60 of its own journalists had joined the protest marches - a sign that could be taken as a notable endorsement of the cause, or a measure of how much has already changed since Mubarak's exit.
New York Times service