Attacks on the Press 1999: Egypt

For the second consecutive year, President Hosni Mubarak’s government ignored vocal protests against the state’s use of criminal and libel laws to muzzle journalists. At least 11 reporters and editors were investigated or tried for libel and other alleged publications offenses. According to Egyptian human-rights organizations, dozens of criminal cases were pending against members of the press at year’s end. On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ named President Mubarak one of the world’s top 10 enemies of the press.

On August 14, Magdy Hussein, editor of the opposition newspaper Al-Sha’b, and two of Al-Sha’b staffers were sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly defaming Agriculture Minister Youssef Wali in a controversial series of articles that accused the minister of promoting “agricultural normalization” with Israel. All three were released in December after Egypt’s Court of Cassation ruled that they had been denied a fair trial, but a second trial was expected in 2000.

In September, President Mubarak was reelected by referendum, garnering no less than 99.79 percent of the vote. Despite hopes that this overwhelming mandate would encourage the Egyptian leader to allow more freedom of expression, he made no move to do so and continued to ignore protests from Egyptian journalists and human-rights organizations concerned about the impact of the country’s draconian press laws.

The press law that Mubarak approved in 1996 stipulates prison sentences of up to one year for journalists convicted of defamation, or up to two years if the suit is filed by a public official. Fines can reach £E 20,000 (US$5,900) for each offense. Other sections of the penal code–such as those that ban “inciting hatred,” “violating public morality,” “harming the national economy,” and offending a foreign head of state–carry prison sentences of one to two years.

The government continued to control the licensing, printing, and distribution of newspapers, hindering the emergence of independent alternatives to the established opposition and official publications.

Independents that managed to obtain licenses, such as the defunct Sawt al Umma, remained vulnerable to harassment. In February, the Higher Press Council, a government agency, revoked Sawt al Umma‘s license on the narrow technical grounds that the paper had failed to disclose its shareholders as required by law. Many of the paper’s staff had formerly worked with the popular weekly Al-Dustur and the short-lived weekly Alf Leya, both of which were shut down by authorities in 1998.

To circumvent these tight controls, several independent publications have licensed themselves abroad, in countries such as Cyprus. But foreign and offshore publications must submit to government censorship prior to their distribution in Egypt, which means risking confiscation and consequent financial loss. Some have set up informal arrangements with Ministry of Information censors so that objectionable material can be withdrawn before printing and distribution.

Publications that forgo such arrangements remain at the mercy of authorities. The London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi told CPJ that authorities were confiscating an average of 20 editions a month because of its coverage of Egyptian affairs.

February 7
Abbas al-Tarabili, Al-Wafd LEGAL ACTION
Muhammad Abdel Alim, Al-Wafd LEGAL ACTION

Between February 7 and February 8, state security court prosecutors interrogated al-Tarabili, co-editor of the opposition daily Al-Wafd, and Abdel Alim, a reporter for the paper, about their coverage of a strike by employees of the Central Bank’s printing press. The two journalists were charged with “publishing false information to harm public interests, inciting public opinion, and inciting workers to abandon work.”

The offending article ran in the February 5 edition of Al-Wafd under the headline “Government Considers an Urgent Meeting to Contain Worker Unrest: Protests and Strikes Spread to Government Institutions and the Central Bank.”

On February 8, the two journalists were released after posting bail of E£ 500 (US$150). Their trial was still pending at year’s end. If convicted, they face up to two years in prison.

February 14
Galal Aref, Al-Arabi LEGAL ACTION

State prosecutors referred Aref, a reporter for the Nasserist opposition weekly Al-Arabi, to the Cairo Criminal Court. He was charged with having libeled Egyptian writer Tharwat Abaza, who writes for the semi-official daily Al-Ahram. The charges came in response to Abaza’s complaint about a 1999 article in which Aref described the writer as “loathsome and abusive.”

Aref faced up to one year in prison if convicted of the charge; his trial was still pending at year’s end. In 1998, two Egyptian journalists, Gamal Fahmy and Amer Nassef, were imprisoned after being convicted of libeling Abaza.

February 20
Abbas al-Tarabili, Al-Wafd LEGAL ACTION
Gamal Shawqi, Al-Wafd LEGAL ACTION

State security prosecutors summoned al-Tarabili, co-editor of the opposition daily AlWafd, and Shawqi, a reporter at the paper, for questioning on charges of “publishing false and sensational information with the intent of harming national interests.”

The charges stemmed from an article published in AlWafd stating that Egyptian banks had been instructed by authorities not to accept time deposits from customers for periods exceeding one year. Authorities were still investigating the case at year’s end. If tried and convicted, both journalists faced prison terms.

February 23
Sawt al-Umma CENSORED

The government Higher Press Council (HPC) revoked the license of the weekly newspaper Sawt alUmma on the grounds that it had failed to notify the HPC of changes in the company’s list of shareholders, as required by law.

Earlier in the month, Sawt alUmma‘s parent company, Sawt Al-Umma Publishing and Journalism House, elected a new board of directors. At the same time, new shareholders purchased a stake in the company. On February 23, the paper’s printer, Al-Ahram Printing House, refused to print the February 21 edition of Sawt al-Umma, citing the HPC’s decision.

Issam Ismail Fahmy, chairman of Sawt al-Umma Publishing and Journalism House, is the former chairman of the weekly Al-Dustur, which was shut down by the authorities in February 1998 after the Ministry of Information revoked its license. Ibrahim Issa, an editor of Sawt al-Umma, had also worked for Al-Dustur as well as the weekly Alf-Lela. Having revoked its license, authorities closed Alf-Lela in August 1998.

April 20
Adel Hussein, Al-Sha’b LEGAL ACTION
Essam al-Din Hanafi, Al-Sha’b LEGAL ACTION

A state prosecutor referred journalists from Al-Sha’b, the biweekly organ of the Socialist Labor party (SLP), for trial on charges of libeling Youssef Wali, the deputy prime minister and minister of agriculture. Those charged were Magdy Hussein, editor of Al-Sha’b, Adel Hussein, the SLP’s secretary general, Bedeiwi, a reporter for Al-Sha’b, and Hanafi, a cartoonist for the paper.

Wali filed a complaint against Al-Sha’b on April 1, after several months of the paper’s publishing rancorous criticism of his allegedly treasonous agricultural cooperation with Israel. Among the paper’s accusations were that the minister had imported tainted seeds and fertilizers from Israel that led to increased rates of cancer among the population.

On August 14, the South Cairo criminal court convicted Hussein, Bedeiwi, and Hanafi of libel. The three journalists were sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of E£ 20,000 (US$5,900). They were also ordered to pay damages of E£ 501 (US$150).

Both Magdy Hussein and Bedeiwi were taken into custody shortly after the verdict was announced. They were released in December, after an appeals court ruled that they had not received a fair trial. Hanafi turned himself a few days before the court decision and was released along with his colleagues.

In addition to the sentences handed down against Magdy Hussein, Bedeiwi, and Hanafi, the court also assessed a £E20,000 fine against Adel Hussein, secretary general of the SLP, which publishes Al-Sha’b.

May 1
Hussein al-Mataani, Sahebat al Gallala IMPRISONED

Al-Mataani was arrested on a number of charges stemming from his attempts to form an independent journalists’ union to compete with the state-sanctioned Journalists Syndicate. Al-Mataani, who is not a registered journalist, was charged with forming a syndicate without government approval, collecting money from members, and misrepresenting himself as a journalist.

On June 19, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. In a separate, still-pending charge, he was accused of publishing the union’s weekly newspaper, Sahebat al Gallala, without a license.

May 10
Magdy Hussein, Al-Sha’b LEGAL ACTION
Talaat Rumeih, Al-Sha’b LEGAL ACTION
Amr Abdel Moneim, Al-Sha’b LEGAL ACTION
Essam al-Din Hanafi, Al-Sha’b LEGAL ACTION
Adel Hussein, Al-Sha’b LEGAL ACTION

A state prosecutor charged journalists from Al-Sha’b, the biweekly organ of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), with libel. Those referred to trial were Magdy Hussein, editor of AlSha’b, Adel Hussein, the SLP’s secretary general and an occasional Al-Sha’b contributor, Rumeih, AlSha’b‘s managing editor, AlSha’b staff reporter Moneim, and Hanafi, a cartoonist for the paper.

The charges related to a series of articles and cartoons published in AlSha’b in 1998 and 1999 that lambasted Hussein Sabbour, an Egyptian businessman and head of the Al-Muhandess Bank, for allegedly investing millions of dollars in Israel. A trial date had not yet been set at year’s end. If convicted, the journalists faced fines and up to one year in prison.

June 1
Middle East Times CENSORED

Ministry of Information officials censored a piece by retired colonel Muhammad Ghanem that was to have run in the June 3 edition of the English-language weekly Middle East Times. Entitled “The Tragedy of Administrative Detention,” Ghanem’s essay criticized the arbitrary detention of political prisoners in Egypt under provisions of the Emergency Law.

The Middle East Times publishes in Cyprus but submits its proofs to the Ministry of Information each week. The paper resorted to this practice several years ago after censors reacted to its coverage of various sensitive topics by repeatedly banning its distribution in Egypt. These frequent bans brought the Middle East Times to the brink of bankruptcy.

September 14

Information Minister Safwat al-Sherif issued a decree banning distribution of the September 24 edition of the monthly Al-Tadamun, which is published from Cyprus.

Authorities confiscated some 10,000 copies of the paper from its state-run distributor. The ban was apparently prompted by a front-page column attacking government restrictions on press freedom in Egypt. Written by editor Muhammad Abu Liwaya, the article mentioned the 1996 suspension of Al-Tadamun over its criticism of Arab leaders, along with the recent arrests of several Egyptian journalists.

November 1
Muhammad Hassan al-Banna, Al-Khamis LEGAL ACTION
Fuad Fawwaz, AlKhamis LEGAL ACTION

Prosecutor General Maher Abdel Wahid charged al-Banna, editor of the weekly AlKhamis, and Fawwaz, a journalist for the same paper, with allegedly defaming Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. The newspaper had attacked Qaddafi in a number of editorials, describing him as a liar.

The indictment was reportedly triggered by an official Libyan complaint. Under Egypt’s harsh press laws, libeling foreign heads of state is a criminal offense. If convicted, the two journalists face up to two years in prison.