Newswatch | Newswatch

You are here

Prosecutors question editor for rumours about Mubarak's health

Egyptian prosecutors on Wednesday questioned the editor of a prominent independent newspaper about his paper's recent reports on the health of the country's 79-year-old leader, President Hosni Mubarak.

Ibrahim Eissa and one of his journalists, Sahar Zaki, were sentenced on June 29, 2006 to a year in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (1,450 euros) on charges of libelling the president, according to RSF. The Al-Warraq appeal court subsequently quashed the prison sentence and doubled the fine.

Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent daily Al-Dustour, was questioned for several hours by prosecutors Wednesday outside Cairo on accusations that he published reports “likely to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm to or damage to the public interest,” according to Eissa’s lawyers. The accusations, crimes under Article 102 of the Egyptian Penal Code that carry stiff prison sentences, stem from recent front-page headlines and an opinion piece in Al-Dustour about recent speculation about Mubarak’s failing health.

“If the government is unhappy about media speculation then it should provide the public with accurate and reliable information, not threaten journalists with prosecution,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “This spurious investigation should be dismissed at once.”

“This case is just a pretext for settling scores with an independent daily whose editor is very critical of the government,” Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said. “Eissa was not the first to report the rumours about the president’s health, but he was the only one to get a summons. We are all the more concerned as the case should be tried by the court for the press and publications, and not by the state security court.”

The head of the office of the state security prosecutor interrogated Eissa about the meaning of headlines that implied that “the future of Egypt would depend on decisions President Mubarak might take in a moment of sickness, and that he had blood circulation problems,” Gamal Eid, one of Eissa’s lawyer’s, told CPJ. “It was an inquisition.” His paper also published an opinion piece defending Egyptians’ right to know about the aging president’s health and sharply criticizing the government’s failure to keep them informed.

In recent weeks, speculation in the Egyptian press about the 79-year-old leader’s health has been rife — something many journalists blame on the absence of reliable information from officials on the matter. The speculation abated after Mubarak was recently seen on television receiving Jordan’s King Abdullah and other European politicians.

“Eissa simply reported what was on everybody’s mind in Egypt,” said Mahmoud Kandil, another of the editor’s lawyers, CPJ reported. “The purpose of his [questioning] was to spread fear among Egyptian journalists.”

The investigation of Eissa was launched after an outcry by Egyptian officials and the state-backed press criticizing rumormongering by Egyptian newspapers, CPJ said. Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak also made a rare and strong rebuke of the press in an interview with Al-Arabia satellite channel, stating that her husband’s health was “excellent” and that “there must be punishment either for a journalist, a television programme, or a newspaper that publishes the rumours.”

Many newspapers have referred to the rumours in the past two weeks. In an attempt to put a stop to the speculation, the pro-government newspaper Al-Ahram published an interview with the president last week in which he implicitly accused the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist movement, of being behind the rumours, according to RSF. The same newspaper recently carried an article accusing Al-Dustour of being linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a related development Monday, the government-controlled Supreme Press Council, which issues licenses and guidelines to newspapers, said it had formed two commissions composed of media and legal experts to assess press coverage of Mubarak’s health and to “decide what legal measures should be taken,” the council said in a statement.

Eissa and his newspaper have frequently been targeted by Egyptian courts for their independent news coverage, according to CPJ. Eissa and three other editors are due to appear in court in Cairo on September 13 on charges of allegedly insulting President Mubarak and his top aides, including his son Gamal, whose rising influence within the ruling National Democratic Party spurred speculation that he might be the country’s next president.

Eissa and one of his journalists, Sahar Zaki, were sentenced on June 29, 2006 to a year in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (1,450 euros) on charges of libelling the president, according to RSF. The Al-Warraq appeal court subsequently quashed the prison sentence and doubled the fine.

In May, CPJ designated Egypt as one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom, citing an increase in the number of attacks on the press over the past five years.

Earlier this week, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights confirmed in its annual report for 2006 that attacks on freedom of expression and the press and the prosecution of journalists for “expressing their opinions” were on the rise.

Date posted: September 8, 2007 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 393