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Too little attention is paid to the region's distorted legal systems.

Summary: With the violent radicalism and civil wars of the Middle East and North Africa capturing the attention of the world, the region's grossly distorted legal systems are being given short shrift.

With the violent radicalism and civil wars of the Middle East and North Africa capturing the attention of the world, the region's grossly distorted legal systems are being given short shrift. Yet problematic laws are in place such as those that criminalize defamation, facilitate political and economic repression, undermine development and destroy lives.

Egypt's government is perhaps the biggest abuser of defamation and blasphemy laws to suppress differing views. In particular, the Egyptian authorities have brazenly used Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code -- which prohibits citizens from defaming a "heavenly religion," inciting sectarian strife or insulting Islam -- to detain, prosecute and imprison members of nonmajority religious groups, especially Christians. All that is needed for the authorities to engage in such action is a vague claim that the activities of the accused are jeopardizing "communal harmony."

Moreover, the writer Ahmed Naji was recently handed a two-year prison sentence for violating "public modesty," by publishing a sexually explicit excerpt from his novel. This came just a month after the author Fatma Naoot appealed the three-year sentence she received when a Facebook post criticizing the slaughter of animals for a Muslim feast led to a guilty verdict for "contempt for Islam." The list goes on.

Ominously, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, blasphemy cases have been on the rise since 2011. In January 2015, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree that permits the government to ban any foreign publications it deems offensive to religion, thereby expanding the government's already significant censorship powers and increasing pressure on journalists further.

The situation is not much better in Tunisia, where, according to the 2015 report of Freedom House, "criminal defamation remains one of the biggest obstacles to independent reporting." Moreover, many are concerned that the country's newly established cybercrime investigative agency will carry out "unchecked government surveillance on Tunisian citizens," as occurred under former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the Arab Spring revolution.

Jordan has also ratcheted up its attempts to limit free expression, with a June 2015 amendment to its cybercrime law allowing the attorney general to detain, without a court order, anyone deemed to have used the Internet for defamation. While Jordan's Press and Publications Law prohibits the arrest of journalists for opinions that were expressed in print, journalists are now fair game if those opinions happen to appear online. And, indeed, charges have already been brought against several people.

Among the highest-profile defamation-related cases in the Middle East today is that involving Najat Abu Bakr, a member of the Palestinian parliament who has been summoned for interrogation by the attorney general. This occurred after she had leveled corruption accusations against Hussein al-Araj, a Cabinet minister with close ties to President Mahmoud Abbas. The move seems also to be motivated by Bakr's support for a teachers' strike in the West Bank -- an embarrassment to the Abbas government.

Though Palestine's attorney general is allowed, under existing defamation legislation, to hold a person for 48 hours of questioning, human rights groups have condemned the move. Bakr, for her part, has refused the order, and staged a sit-in at the parliament building. Palestinian security forces surrounded the building, but did not attempt to arrest her.

The intensification -- and increasingly broad application -- of defamation laws in the Middle East and North Africa represents a dangerous trend, one that is fueling an increasingly powerful backlash from civil society groups. Naji's case, for example, spurred Egyptian writers, artists and filmmakers to launch a public campaign for greater freedom of creativity and expression.

Furthermore, the former Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was active in the country's 2011 uprising, publicly criticized the verdict against Naji. And several state-owned artistic publications were issued with their front pages either depicting Naji or including just a few words expressing support for free speech, with the rest of the page left blank.

In Jordan, a coalition led by the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists has launched a new campaign, "Talk is Not a Crime," to raise awareness about declining media freedom. And in Palestine, protests against the use of defamation laws to imprison political opponents have gained traction, with popular support for Bakr having played a key role in spurring the agreement that allowed her to return to her house in Nablus without being arrested or called in for questioning.

Outcries against individual cases can go only so far. Campaigns must -- and, increasingly, do -- focus on genuine changes to defamation laws, to ensure that governments cannot use them to stifle dissent. The key will be to remove the criminal element from defamation cases, and thus the prospect of imprisonment, and instead prosecute them as civil cases, with those found guilty of defamation being subject to reasonable fines.

Compelling lawmakers to decriminalize defamation will not be easy. But with a concerted effort from all relevant parties -- especially the media, civil society and human rights activists -- plus the support of regional and international actors, it is possible. Given the critical importance of free speech to economic and social progress, there is no time to waste.

Daoud Kuttab, a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah, is a leading activist for media freedom in the Middle East. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate/Mohammed Bin Rashid Global Initiative [c] (www.project-syndicate.org).

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Mar 22, 2016
Words:956
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