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Egypt: Four more journalists sentenced to jail as press crackdown intensifies

Journalists demonstrate outside parliament in Cairo in 2006. A court Monday sentenced the editor of an opposition paper and two other journalists to two years in jail for "damaging the image of justice" in the latest case against Egypt's media. Photo: AFP/File/Khaled Desouki

Egypt's prosecutor general has reversed a decision to send an outspoken tabloid newspaper editor who questioned President Hosni Mubarak's health to the country's emergency court of no appeal. A judiciary official said Friday that Al-Dustour editor Ibrahim Eissa will instead face a regular criminal court where appeals are possible on October 1. The official did not elaborate on the reasons why the prosecutor general reversed the decision, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

On Monday, Eissa's lawyers were notified that the editor would face trial in the State Security Emergency Court, which is known of handing down swift convictions, on charges of disturbing the peace and harming national economic interests because of articles that his newspaper ran about rumours that Mubarak was ill. Eissa was charged on September 11 with publishing reports “liable to disturb public security and damage the public interest.”

Three journalists on the daily Al-Wafd were earlier sentenced, on Monday, to two years in prison for “harming the reputation of the justice system” while a “defamation” suit was taken out by a party member against the editor of the daily Al-Badeel.

“No journalist has ever been summoned before such an exceptional court,” Gamal Fahmy, a member of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate told CPJ. Egypt’s Emergency Law has been in force since Mubarak assumed power in 1981.

“The state of human rights and freedom of expression is becoming more and more critical in Egypt,” Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said. “There has been a flurry of trials of opposition journalists without them ever having any chance of defending themselves against a justice system which clearly leans towards the government. In just one month, no fewer than seven journalists have been dragged before the courts,” it added.

Egyptian journalists surround the editor of daily 'Al-Dustour', Ibrahim Eissa, centre, one of the four editors who were convicted of insulting President Mubarak, during a conference in defence of freedom of the press at the press syndicate headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, late Thursday, September 21. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

“Egyptian journalists have every right to report on the health of their president,” said Joel Simon, CPJ executive director. “Hauling editor Ibrahim Eissa before a security court that does not allow appeals shows just how far authorities are prepared to go to censor news and intimidate reporters. We call on the state security prosecutor to drop all charges against Eissa immediately.”

Nasser Amin, one of Eissa's lawyers, told the Associated Press (AP) that if his client is convicted, he could face a three-year jail term and a fine.

A criminal misdemeanour court on Monday convicted Al-Wafd Editor-in-Chief Anwar al-Hawari, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mahmoud Ghalab, and Politics Editor Amir Salem under Article 102 of the penal code for publishing news “liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest.”

The charges stem from a complaint filed by 11 lawyers affiliated with the National Democratic Party. The lawyers accused the journalists of “publishing false news and erroneously attributing it to the Minister of Justice, harming the Egyptian judiciary and judges,” the independent Al-Masry al-Youm reported.

In a January 29 article, Al-Wafd described Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei’s appearance before the legislative committee of the Shura Council, the upper house in Egypt’s parliament, in which he criticised lower court judges. The article quoted Marei as saying that the majority of judges in courts of first instance were incompetent, according to Reuters. Other newspapers also reported the justice minister’s comments, Al-Wafd reported.

Head of Journalist Syndicate Galal Aref (left), Head of Writers Union Mohamed Salmaoui (centre) and Head of Lawyers Syndicate Sameh Ashour hold up their hands during a news conference in Cairo September 20. A court has sentenced four outspoken newspaper editors to one year in prison with labour for defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his politician son, drawing swift condemnation from human rights groups. (Reuters/Nasser Nuri)

“We condemn this harsh sentence, which flies in the face of the most basic norms for a free press,” Joel Simon said. “This, along with a recent flurry of criminal prosecutions of outspoken journalists, further underscores the alarming erosion of press freedom now under way in Egypt.”

Al-Hawari told CPJ that Al-Wafd and other dailies printed a letter from an aide to the justice minister saying that Marei was misquoted. The newspaper disputed that assertion in court, pointing to a written statement Marei submitted to the lower house of parliament in which he offered a similar view of the competence of lower court judges, Al-Wafd said.

The court sentenced the editors to a two-year prison sentence and the maximum fine of 200 Egyptian pounds (US$36) each. They were also ordered to pay 2001 Egyptian pounds to the complainants. The editors have appealed and are free on 5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$895) bail apiece. “We firmly believe that the judiciary will reverse this groundless court ruling because we did not commit any offense or crime,” al-Hawari told CPJ

This decision came amid rising attacks on journalists and widespread concern about the future of freedom of expression in the country. A lawyer affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party filed two criminal complaints with the prosecutor’s office against Editor-in-Chief Mohammad al-Sayid Said of the newly founded independent daily Al-Badeel, the journalist told CPJ.

Said told CPJ one of the newly filed complaints stems from a story this month in which the paper criticised the lawyer for filing other lawsuits against journalists. Said told CPJ that he is set to appear October 11 before the prosecutor’s office on libel and insult charges.

Protesters shout in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo September 20, 2007. A court has sentenced four outspoken editors to one year in prison with labour for defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his politician son, drawing swift condemnation from human rights groups. (Reuters/Nasser Nuri)

Said added that the lawyer filed a separate complaint stemming from the paper’s coverage of President Hosni Mubarak’s health in several news items earlier this month. Agence France-Presse said the complaint alleges that the newspaper published “false news.” Said told CPJ that the prosecutor’s office has not yet decided if it will pursue the case.

On September 13, in an unprecedented case, a Cairo court sentenced four independent editors to one-year jail terms for publishing “false information” and defaming Mubarak and his top aides, including son Gamal Mubarak.

The court cases follow a campaign by Egyptian officials and the state-backed press against what they characterise as “rumormongering” by Egyptian newspapers. Earlier this month, Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak gave a rare and strong rebuke of the press in an interview with Al-Arabiya 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 rumors.”

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.

In a separate development, Wael al-Abrashy, editor-in-chief of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, told CPJ that on Saturday last, a Cairo criminal court convicted him, reporters Hana’ Mousa, Rida Awad, and Manal Abdelatif, and the paper’s chairman, Essam Fahmy, of libeling and insulting an Egyptian businessman.

Egyptian editor Abdel Halim Qandil of the weekly 'Al-Karama', one of the four editors who were convicted of insulting President Mubarak, talks during a conference in defense of freedom of the press at the press syndicate headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, late Thursday, September 20. A state court sentenced editors of four outspoken tabloids to a year in prison for defaming Mubarak and his ruling party. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Mousa said they each received two-month jail terms and 100 Egyptian pound (US$18) fine in absentia. She said they were not aware of the case or the charges against them and she was surprised to hear of the verdict. Al-Abrashy and Mousa said they did not know what sparked the case and could not provide any further details.

That same day, Mousa told CPJ, a Cairo criminal court convicted her, al-Abrashy, Awad, and Fahmy of libeling and insulting another businessman and sentenced them in absentia to one month in jail. The case stems from a mid-May article Mousa wrote in which a foreign investor and his Egyptian business partner said they were not paid money owed to them for completing a contract with an engineering company. The head of the company accused the weekly of publishing false information and tarnishing the company’s image.

Al-Abrashy told CPJ that he viewed these convictions as part of the crackdown on the independent and opposition press by individuals affiliated or close to the ruling National Democratic Party.

Date posted: September 28, 2007 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 18864