YouTube ban in Egypt is a setback for freedom of expression

A temporary ban on YouTube imposed in Egypt over a video deemed offensive to Islam is a setback for freedom of expression , Amnesty International has said.A court in Cairo this weekend ordered a 30-day block on the video-sharing website in the wake of the controversial ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, which sparked protests across Muslim countries in September.Saturday’s court ruling said that “freedom of opinion [should] not attack the beliefs of others”.”This ruling is a clear assault of freedom of expression and has far-reaching consequences in the country where activists have relied heavily on YouTube to expose human rights abuses in the country,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.”Criticism of religions and beliefs are a vital part of freedom of expression – regardless of how offensive or intolerant the opinion might be.”Cairo’s Administrative Court said there must be a balance between freedom of expression and “the interests and goals of society, and the protection of its values and traditions”.It added that freedom of opinion should not “provoke the feelings and resentment of believers of other religions, particularly heavenly religions” and that the media should refrain from “defamation” of religious figures.The court’s reasons for banning YouTube are in direct contradiction with international human rights law, which protects freedom of expression, including the expression of ideas that are offensive. “Criticism of religions and other beliefs and ideas is a vital component of the right to freedom of expression,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.”Such criticism, insult or mockery does not interfere with the individual believer’s freedom of religion, however offensive they may find it.”   The court also ordered a ban of other websites showing the film.A human rights NGO that opposed the ruling, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, is planning to appeal.”The technical and financial difficulties of enforcing this decision most likely means that it will be essentially impossible to implement in practice,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.”Nevertheless, it increases concerns over the imposition of restrictions on freedom of expression on the grounds of defamation of religions.”  The ruling comes against the backdrop of a rise in people being prosecuted on blasphemy charges in Egypt.Last month a Cairo court upheld a three-year prison sentence against Alber Saber on charges of “defamation of religion” for publishing videos deemed offensive, including the ‘Innocence of Muslims’. The Egyptian constitution protects freedom of expression but with limits, including for insulting and defaming religion or individuals. The International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party, protects expression of ideas even when they are considered offensive or insulting.