Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi used his self-declared legislative authority for the first time Thursday to revoke a law that required journalists charged with insulting the country’s leaders remain imprisoned until trial.
The sudden change of a decades-old law appeared to be a bid to ease fears that Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected leader, wouldn’t embrace freedom of the press. It came one day before a protest rally to protest what some say are dictatorial moves by Morsi.
The first beneficiary of the new law was Islam Afifi, the editor of al Dustour, a privately owned independent newspaper, who was charged with insulting the president and publishing fabrications for an article that was published Aug. 11 that some say led to sectarian fights in a Cairo suburb. Afifi made his first court appearance Thursday and was to have been detained until his Sept. 16 trial.
Afifi’s arrest had outraged many Egyptians, who said it harkened back to the days when Hosni Mubarak was in office, and it drew international criticism.
“Egypt should uphold its international obligations and ensure people are not subject to criminal prosecution for peaceful criticism, even if what they say is perceived to be offensive,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland of the charges against Afifi.
“Both the authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood must accept public criticism of their positions and actions without trying to hide behind Mubarak-era laws criminalizing the exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Amnesty International.
Hours later, Morsi ordered Afifi’s release until his trial.
State media has been controlled and edited by the government for decades, leading to stories that were rarely critical. Hopes that the new president would bring an independent press were dashed earlier this month when 50 new editors were named to lead state-owned newspapers. Nearly all were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Morsi led before he resigned after being elected to the presidency.