Regulating freedom of expression

In April 2008 Egypt’s first “graphic comic book” – Metro – was pulled off of Cairo’s bookshelves upon the orders of a police officer who perceived that its contents were indecent. Police forces also broke into the offices of Dar El Malamih – Metro’s publishing house – and seized all the copies of this comic book. The police officer who had ordered these seizures submitted his request of confiscation to the General Prosecutor’s Office which in turn forwarded this request to the South Cairo Primary Court. In April 2009 this court authorized the confiscation of the Metro Comic Book. In response, both the comic book’s creator Magdy El Shafee and its publisher Mohamed El Sharkawy filed a judicial appeal before the South Cairo Civil Court against this confiscation order. Several months later, after having examined the contents of this comic book this court issued its verdict on June 23, 2009 – upholding the previous confiscation order.
The court’s verdict mentioned that the comic book “contains many expressions which conflict with public decency, and which conflict with its purpose of serving as a decent cultural work for its readers…” In reaction to this verdict El Sharkawy, the Managing Director of the Dar El Malamih Publishing House said “I cannot believe how comic books are being confiscated and banned in Egypt in the year 2009. I don’t understand the reasoning behind all this. I can’t believe that our freedoms of artistic creation are still at risk in this day and age. There are numerous Egyptian novelists who use far more explicit language in their works, and there are curse words in nearly every foreign movie playing in Egyptian cinemas. Moreover, on the internet there are no restrictions on language or images. However, our freedoms of expression are still at risk in this country.” Sharkawy added “I feel let down.”
As for Defense Lawyer Ahmad Ragheb, he explained that “I was expecting that this court would reject our appeal for the overturning of the confiscation order. Nevertheless, we are taking this case to the next level, the Appeals Court – on the basis that the initial confiscation order is unconstitutional.” Ragheb added “the confiscation orders were executed in accordance to Articles 178 and 198 of the Egyptian Criminal Code. These two articles are outdated, and they allow for unwarranted governmental interference in artistic works. We are arguing that these articles are in breach of the provisions found in Articles 47 and 48 of the Egyptian Constitution – which safeguard the freedom of expression.”
Articles 178 and 198 of the Penal Code prohibit the printing or distribution of publications which contravene public decency, and authorize the confiscation of publications which contain offenses to public morals. As for Article 47 of the Egyptian Constitution it stipulates that “Freedom of opinion is guaranteed. Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally or in writing or through photography or by other means within the limits of the law. Self-criticism and constructive criticism are the guarantees for the safety of the national structure. Meanwhile Article 48 stipulates that “Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed. Censorship of newspapers is forbidden, as well as warning, suspending or canceling them by administrative methods. In a state of emergency or in time of war a limited censorship may be imposed on the newspapers, publications and mass media in matters related to public safety or purposes of national security in accordance with the law.”
Metro had only been on the shelves for one and a half months when it was banned from circulation in April 2008. El Shafee had written and illustrated his comic book over the course of five years, during which time one of his other works won the UNESCO’s gratitude for “best African comic-strip” in 2006. The comic book’s cover bears an Arabic notice reading: “For Adults Only.” Its story revolves around a young Cairene software engineer named Shihab who lives in a dog-eat-dog society afflicted with the vices of poverty, political corruption, and economic injustice; all of which are sensitive issues in Egypt. In this fictitious novel, Shehab and his friend Mustafa decide to rob a bank in order to pay back a large debt owed to an illicit loan-shark. The two most controversial drawings in this comic book are those depicting a couple making love on a bed (concealed beneath the sheets,) and a half-naked woman. There are also a few curse words sparsely scattered in the pages – specifically “fag, whore, and pimp/bastard.”
Further Charges
Police wasn’t the only trouble facing Metro’s maker and publisher. An ultra-conservative lawyer has argued that Metro must be withdrawn from bookshelves on the basis that its comic-strip format coupled with explicit language makes its adult content easily comprehensible to all, including children. More seriously, he has also filed criminal charges against El Shafee and El Sharkawy on the basis of their “immoral works.” According to Ragheb the lawsuit leveled against his clients was filed by a “Hesba lawyer” who is “under the misconception that he is obliged to uphold societal ethics and to prohibit that which he perceives as being morally wrong. This same lawyer is said to have previously filed the criminal charges leveled against the Chief Editor of the independent Al Dustour Newspaper, Ibrahim Eissa, for his alleged publication offenses.” Ragheb added that “this self-righteous lawyer has filed criminal charges, according to the provisions of Article 178 of the Penal Code, against both the book’s creator and its publisher on the basis that their actions constitute misdemeanor crimes. If found guilty both El Shafee and El Sharkawy maybe fined up to LE 20,000 and/or sentenced to imprisonment for up to two years. Ragheb believes that his clients shall not be sentenced to imprisonment, but may be fined. In any condition this case may also be appealed. This verdict is to be announced at the Qasr El Nil Court of Misdemeanors on July 18.

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