Egypt’s press remains one of the most influential in the Arab world. The editorial and opinion pages of the leading daily papers are widely read in many Arab countries for their coverage of regional affairs. On a local level, newspapers deal with a wide range of issues. Opposition papers, in particular, often criticize government officials and policies.
However, Egypt’s press operates under numerous formal restrictions, and self-censorship prevails on several sensitive topics. Journalists avoid criticizing the president, the army, high-level officials, the security forces, and generally steer clear of reporting on serious government human rights abuses. The state owns the broadcast media, as well as shares in the major daily newspapers, whose editors are appointed by President Hosni Mubarak. Authorities maintain a strict licensing regime for the press, making it difficult for new independent titles to emerge without government consent.
Egypt has officially been in a state of emergency since the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981. This allows authorities to try journalists and others in state security courts and military-style tribunals whose decisions cannot be appealed. Harsh libel laws and other statutes have been used to prosecute and jail several journalists in recent years.
Between 1998 and 2000, six Egyptian journalists were jailed for libel and other criminal offenses related to their work. Three of them have been imprisoned more than once. Tough provisions in Egypt’s Press Code, approved in 1996, stipulate prison sentences of up to one year for journalists convicted of defamation, or up to two years if a public official files the suit. Fines can reach £E20,000 (US$4,400) for each offense. Other crimes–such as “inciting hatred,” “violating public morality,” “harming the national economy,” and offending a foreign head of state–carry prison sentences of one to two years.
In the most notorious case of 2001, Mamdouh Mahran, editor of the weekly sister tabloids Al-Nabaa and Akher Khabar, was sentenced to three years in prison after he published an article, accompanied by graphic photos, alleging that a Coptic monk was having sexual relations with women in a monastery and then blackmailing them with videotapes of the interludes.
The story provoked riots by Coptic Christians in Egypt, who contended that the articles insulted their religion. Mahran failed to clarify that the monk had been defrocked in 1996. He claimed not to have known this, but few Copts believed him. Although Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian polulation generallly lives at peace with the majority of Muslims, Muslim-Christian relations are a sensitive topic because Copts complain of official discrimination.
The Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo quickly distanced itself from Mahran and moved to revoke his membership. Mahran sued the syndicate and won, asserting that his expulsion violated the group’s rules. In July, an administrative court revoked the publishing licenses of both papers.
Mahran’s trial received a great deal of press coverage. Several editorials in the mainstream press decried Egyptian “yellow journalism,” but other pundits argued that the decision to suspend the publication was rash. Though the State Security Court ruling took effect immediately, Mahran reportedly suffered a heart attack the day before he was to begin his prison term. At year’s end, he had not gone to jail but remained in hospital under guard.
During the year, government officials tried to tighten the country’s already harsh press laws. In March, journalists and human rights advocates protested after Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni sent amendments to the Public Records Law to Parliament for consideration. Had the proposal been incorporated into the law, it would have imposed a five-year prison sentence and a £E10,000 fine (about US$2,200) for publishing or photocopying a government document without prior written consent from the Cabinet. The amendment had not been passed or even debated at press time. Yet the threat remains. Such a vague, wide-ranging law could cut off debate on any issue and could potentially give the state wide latitude to define what constitutes a government document. Opposition papers in Egypt, notably Al-Wafd, battled the law in the lines of their columns.
The Political Parties Committee banned several parties this year, along with their party newspapers. The Egypt Party and its newspaper Egypt, as well as the National Conciliation Party and its newspaper Al-Qarar, were banned in October and August, respectively. It is unclear whether or not the parties will be able to resume activities. These closures follow the May 2000 closure of the Socialist Labor Party and its mouthpiece, Al-Sha’b. The editors of Al-Sha’b have launched an online version of the paper, which reaches a limited audience due to low rates of Internet access in Egypt.
To circumvent the convoluted licensing regime, some journalists register their papers as foreign publications in countries such as Cyprus and then print them inside Egypt, in the Free Investment Zone in Nasser City, or abroad. However, such newspapers are subject to review by the foreign publications censor, who reports directly to the minister of information and can ban publications deemed to contain objectionable material. To avoid censorship and financial loss from suspensions, some papers have informal arrangements with the censors to get their copy approved before printing.
Abdel Halim Qandil, Al-Arabi
Abdullah Sennawy, Al-Arabi
The family of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat filed a US$1.3 million criminal defamation case against the Nasserist opposition weekly Al-Arabi and its editors, Qandil and Sennawy.
The case stemmed from a special issue of the paper, published December 31, 2000, under the title “Abdel Nasser: Hero of the Century. Sadat: the Greatest Traitor.” The edition was a retrospective of Egypt in the 20th century.
In addition to the $1.3 million in damages, the case called for the imprisonment of Qandil and Sennawy and a three-month ban on the newspaper.
The Sadat family later agreed to drop the case after the newspaper published an apology on February 11, 2001.
Mamdouh Mahran, Al-Nabaa
Mahran, editor of the controversial weekly newspaper Al-Nabaa, was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 200 Egyptian pounds (about US$50) for allegedly undermining public security, publishing scandalous photos, insulting religion, and causing civil turmoil.
The charges stemmed from a June 17 Al-Nabaa cover story alleging that a Coptic Christian monk had sex with several women in a Coptic monastery in southern Egypt and filmed the encounters to blackmail the women. The piece was accompanied by provocative photos.
The Al-Nabaa article led to demonstrations and riots among Egypt’s Coptic minority, who viewed the story as an insult to their religion.
Coptic Church officials vehemently denied that sexual acts had taken place in the monastery and pointed out that the monk in question had been defrocked five years earlier, a fact omitted from Al–Nabaa’s account.
Mahran was not present in court for the verdict, but according to a legal expert quoted in the semiofficial Egyptian daily Al-Ahram on September 17, Mahran’s sentence was enforceable immediately and could not be appealed.
The September 16 ruling also ordered the confiscation of the offending edition, as well as that of the daily Akher Khabar, also edited by Mahran. Akher Khabar ran an article about the alleged scandal one day after the Al-Nabaa cover story.
Previously, on July 4, an administrative court revoked Al–Nabaa‘s and Akher Khabar‘s publishing licenses over the articles.
In a September 20 press release, CPJ condemned Mahran’s sentence, noting that, “While we understand that many Egyptians were offended by the Al-Nabaa article, CPJ believes that journalists should not face criminal prosecution for their work.”
The day before he was to begin his sentence, Mahran reportedly suffered a heart attack. At press time he was under guard at a private heart trauma center in Cairo.