Attacks on the Press 2000: Egypt

A YEAR AFTER WINNING A PRESIDENTIAL REFERENDUM in which he was the sole candidate, President Hosni Mubarak dashed hopes that his fourth sixth-year term would bring any loosening of official restraints on the media. Censorship and the jailing of journalists persisted, and there was a disturbing rash of violent police and other attacks against members of the press.

In April, authorities jailed three journalists from the opposition newspaper Al-Sha’b-editor Magdy Hussein, reporter Saleh Bedeiwi, and cartoonist Essam Hanafi-after they were convicted on appeal of libeling Youssef Wali, the deputy prime minister and minister of agriculture. The charges came in response to a controversial series of articles and cartoons that criticized Wali’s allegedly treasonous agricultural cooperation with Israel. Hanafi was freed in October, while Hussein and Bedeiwi were let out in December.

Since February 1998, six journalists have been imprisoned for libel in Egypt. During that period, Hussein has gone to prison three separate times. His colleagues Bedeiwi and Hanafi have each been jailed twice. Meanwhile, the Mubarak government again ignored repeated calls to amend Egypt’s harsh Press Law and remove the penalty of imprisonment for libel. The current law imposes prison sentences of up to two years on journalists convicted of defamation. Dozens of criminal libel cases were apparently pending in the courts at year’s end.

In May, the state-controlled Political Parties Committee banned Al-Sha’b and suspended the activities of its political sponsor, the Socialist Labor Party. The banning order cited alleged divisions in the party’s leadership, but there seemed little doubt that it was motivated by Al-Sha’b‘s fierce campaign against the Ministry of Culture for authorizing publication of a book that the newspaper deemed blasphemous.

The newspaper’s attacks against Syrian author Haidar Haidar’s Banquet for Seaweed were thought to have triggered student riots at Al-Azhar University in late April. Al-Sha’b‘s stance may have offended many among the country’s secular intelligentsia, but the ban was eventually lifted by two administrative court rulings, in July and October. The state printer was still refusing to print the newspaper at year’s end, however. Since printing is a government monopoly in Egypt, this meant that Al-Sha’b was still effectively banned.

Several independent publishers have sought to circumvent the state’s tight control over the licensing, printing, and distribution of newspapers by registering themselves abroad as foreign publications. These offshore publications must, however, be submitted to government censors before distribution in the country, which means risking confiscation and consequent financial loss. Over the years, some offshore papers have set up informal arrangements with Ministry of Information censors so that objectionable material can be withdrawn before printing and distribution.

In February, the State Council was said to be considering a proposed amendment to the Press Law that would subject offshore publications to review by Interior Ministry police rather than civilian officials at the ministry. The proposed amendment would also empower the Cabinet to ban any publication that “promotes” such vague offenses as “moral corruption, assaults on religion, the upset of public security, disseminat[ing] fear among people, or harm[ing] public interest.” No action was taken on the amendment, however.

Several journalists were physically assaulted during parliamentary elections in October and November. On October 24, Associated Press reporter Mariam Fam was knocked to the ground and beaten by police while investigating allegations of police intimidation of voters in the Nile Delta region. In early November, police and civilian thugs attacked reporters from Qatar’s Al-Jazeera satellite television network, The New York Times, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and local Egyptian papers, among others. Journalists reported that several journalists were assaulted in front of police, who did nothing to intervene.

Magdy Hussein, Al-Sha’b
Saleh Bedeiwi,
Essam Hanafi, Al-Sha’b

Hussein, editor of the opposition Socialist Labor Party’s twice-weekly paper Al-Sha’b, reporter Bedeiwi, and cartoonist Hanafi were convicted of libeling Youssef Wali, the deputy prime minister and minister of agriculture.

The charges were initially filed in 1999, over a controversial series of articles and cartoons that attacked Wali’s program of agricultural cooperation with Israel. Among Al-Sha’b‘s many accusations were that the minister had imported tainted seeds and fertilizers from Israel that led to increased rates of cancer among the population.

Hussein and Bedeiwi each received two-year prison terms, while Hanafi was given a one-year sentence. The three journalists were each fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$5900), as was Socialist Labor Party secretary-general Adel Hussein.

Hussein, Bedeiwi, and Hanafi were arrested shortly after the verdict was pronounced and taken to Cairo’s Torah Mazraa prison to serve their sentences. CPJ condemned the verdict in a news alert issued on April 1.

Hanafi was released from prison in October, and Hussein and Bedeiwi were freed in December. The case was then closed.

Salah Qabdaya, Al-Ahrar
Nabil Rizkallah Sadiq, Al-Ahrar
Hussam Suleiman, Al-Ahrar
Muhammad Abdel Fahim al-Nur, Al-Ahrar
Hisham Mustafa Tantawi, Al-Ahrar

A Cairo criminal court found five journalists working for the opposition weekly newspaper Al-Ahrar guilty of libeling Egypt Air chairman Muhammad Fahim al-Rayyan.

Editor Qabdaya, cartoonist Sadiq, and reporters Suleiman, al-Nur, and Tantawi were given six-month prison terms and fined Egyptian 7500 (US$2100) each.

Rayyan had filed suit against the five journalists in 1997 over a series of articles and cartoons that accused him of mismanagement and corruption. At year’s end, the journalists remained free pending the outcome of their appeal.

MAY 17
Talaat Rumieh, Al-Sha’b
Magdy Hussein,
Essam Hanafy, Al-Sha’b
Amir Abdel Moneim, Al-Sha’b

A criminal court convicted four journalists from the opposition newspaper Al-Sha’b of libeling local financier Hussein Sabur, head of the Muhandes Bank, in articles that accused Subur of impropriety and mismanagement.

Rumieh, an editor at the twice-weekly Al-Sha’b, was sentenced to six months in prison along with a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (US$130). Editor Magdy Hussein, reporter Amir Abdel Moneim, and cartoonist Essam Hanafy were each fined 7500 pounds (US$2000). Hussein and Hanafy, meanwhile, were already in prison on a separate libel charge (see April 1 case).

At year’s end, Rumieh was free pending an appeal. Hanafy was released in October and Hussein in late December, but all four journalists still faced charges in the Sabur case.

MAY 20

The state-controlled Political Parties Committee imposed an indefinite freeze on the activities of the opposition Socialist Labor Party and its mouthpiece, the twice-weekly Arabic newspaper Al-Sha’b. The committee cited alleged divisions among the party’s leadership as the reason for the ban. But most observers felt the suspension came in response to Al-Sha’b‘s strident campaign against the Egyptian Ministry of Culture for authorizing publication of a book that the paper claimed was blasphemous.

Al-Sha’b‘s attacks against the Ministry and the book Banquet for Seaweed by Syrian author Haidar Haidar, were also believed to have triggered student riots at Al-Azhar University.

In July and in September, two different administrative courts overruled the ban on Al-Sha’b, but the state-run printer refused to print the paper. Because of the state printing monopoly in Egypt, this meant that the paper was effectively still banned.

Mariam Fam, The Associated Press

Egyptian police beat up Associated Press reporter Fam while she was investigating allegations of police intimidation of voters during legislative elections in the Nile Delta region. Fam was one of several journalists who were beaten or physically attacked while covering local elections in October and November. According to the journalists, many attacks were carried out by civilian thugs in front of police, who did nothing to intervene. Some of the attackers were believed to have been working for candidates belonging to President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.