Egypt’s position as one of the most politically influential countries in the Arab world ensures its press a prominent regional standing. The country boasts some of the best-known writers and commentators in the Middle East, and newspaper columnists often pointedly criticize government officials and policies. Nonetheless, Egyptian journalists know that some topics remain sensitive–criticism of President Hosni Mubarak and his family, the army, security forces, and human rights abuses–and they tailor their reporting accordingly.
In addition to self-censorship, journalists must also contend with the infamous Press Law 96 of 1996, which prescribes a one-year prison sentence for defamation, two years if a public official files the suit. Journalists also face imprisonment under other, broader Penal Code provisions, such as those that prohibit “violating public morality” and “damaging national interest.” Seven Egyptian journalists were imprisoned for libel and other criminal offenses between 1998 and 2001, and several more were prosecuted.
In March, a court in the capital, Cairo, sentenced Adel Hammouda and Essam Fahmy, both of the independent weekly Sawt al-Umma, to six months in prison each for defaming prominent Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris. The case stemmed
from an article in which they had accused Sawiris of financial misconduct. Though the journalists were never jailed, the ruling may have fostered even more self-censorship among journalists trying to document alleged corruption by officials and businessmen close to the state.
According to CPJ research, in 2002 the government launched criminal prosecutions against online journalists and writers for the first time. In April, Ahmed Haridy, editor of the online publication Al Methaq al-Araby, was sentenced to six months in prison for defaming Ibrahim Nafie, editor-in-chief and chairman of Egypt’s largest newspaper, the state-owned Al-Ahram. Nafie, who, like other editors of state-owned papers, is appointed to his post at the paper by the president, is an influential figure because of his close relationships with the country’s top leaders.
In May, a court allowed the sister tabloid magazines Al-Nabaa and Akher Khabar to resume publication after they were banned in 2001 for running articles, 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. One of the biggest stories of 2001, the racy articles provoked riots by Coptic Christians in Egypt. Mamdouh Mahran, the magazines’ publisher, is serving a three-year sentence for the stories.
In September, the ruling National Democratic Party elected President Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to a top leadership post and appointed him to head a new party committee. Though some observers privately criticized the actions as part of an attempt by Mubarak to groom his son for the presidency, the media refrained from questioning Gamal’s advancement, a sign that self-censorship still pervades the press when it comes to the sensitive topic of the president and his family.
In addition to legal actions, journalists also faced harassment from state officials. In June, during local elections, Egyptian police detained two journalists from United Arab Emirates-based Abu Dhabi TV and two others from German television channel ZDF in separate incidents while they tried to film at polling stations in Alexandria. The two crews were taken to a police station, where they were briefly held and their tapes were confiscated. Also during the elections, police barred an Associated Press reporter from entering a polling station in Alexandria.
The state owns and operates most of Egypt’s broadcast media, but four private television stations are now on the air. Al-Mehwar, owned by a group of businessmen, has been operating since late 2001, while Dream 1 and Dream 2, owned by Egyptian tycoon Ahmed Bahgat, who is said to have close relations with high-level government officials, have been broadcasting since November 2001. The channels are accessible only via satellite, which few Egyptians have, and Al-Mehwar, the only one to offer news segments, uses reports from state-owned TV stations. However, observers say that one program on Dream 2 does tackle politically sensitive topics more aggressively than state television. Though the station has not yet suffered any reprisals for its political coverage, the government did send the channel a warning after it hosted a program on masturbation.
Meanwhile, censors still have the last word on state-run television. In May, the popular political talk show “Rais El Tahrir” (Editor-in-Chief) was briefly taken off the air after host Hamdi Kandil began criticizing Arab regimes and the Arab Summit, which was held in Beirut in the spring.
In the late 1990s, the government created a “media city” outside of Cairo where media outlets can rent facilities to produce commercial films, as well as news broadcasts and feeds. Journalists who use the facilities have said that officials have not meddled in the content of their productions.
The government strictly controls the newspaper licensing process, making it
difficult to launch new publications without official consent. To circumvent these restrictions, some independent publishers register their papers as foreign publications in countries such as Cyprus and then print them inside Egypt or abroad. However, these publications are subject to an Egyptian foreign-publications censor, who reports directly to the minister of information and can ban publications that contain objectionable material. To avoid censorship and financial loss from suspensions, some papers have informal arrangements with the censors, who agree to review publications before printing.
Mohamed Eid Galal, Al-Jazeera
Mohamed Ezzedine El-Najjar, Al-Jazeera
Galal and El-Najjar were filming a pro-Palestinian student protest at the campus of Alexandria University in the morning, according to sources at the Cairo bureau of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel, when Egyptian security officers approached the journalists as they were loading equipment into their car. Galal and El-Najjar displayed their press credentials but were told they did not have permission to film and would be taken in for questioning at the Bab Sharq Police Station.
After several hours of questioning, El-Najjar was released, but Galal spent the night at the station. The next morning, he appeared before a judge, who ordered him released. Al-Jazeera retrieved its equipment undamaged, but the tape that contained footage of the protest was not returned.
Essam Fahmy, Sawt al-Umma
Adel Hammouda, Sawt al-Umma
The Abdeen Misdemeanor Court convicted Hammouda, editor of the independent weekly Sawt al-Umma, and Fahmy, head of the paper’s board of directors, of defaming prominent Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris and sentenced them to six months in prison each. The charges stemmed from a series of articles published in 2001 detailing alleged financial misconduct by Sawiris and his telecommunications company, Orascom Telecom.
According to Hammouda, since the articles appeared, Sawiris has filed more than 20 suits in different localities against the journalists, all of which remain pending. On March 24, the journalists posted a 500 Egyptian pound (US$107) bail fee and filed an appeal. The case was postponed until January 29, 2003.
Ahmed Haridy, Al Methaq al-Araby
Haridy, editor of the online publication Al Methaq al-Arabyè was sentenced to six months in prison after the Boulaq Abu al-Aila Misdemeanor Court in the capital, Cairo, found him guilty of defaming Ibrahim Nafie, editor-in-chief and
chairman of Egypt’s largest newspaper, the semiofficial Al-Ahram.
The charges stem from a series of articles published in Al Methaq al-Araby in May and June 2001 alleging that Nafie and several other senior Al-Ahram managers were involved in financial malfeasance. According to Haridy, Nafie filed suit against him in July 2001. Haridy told CPJ that he posted bail of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (US$215) and appealed the court’s decision. The case was postponed until February 1, 2003.
Gihan Rushdy, ZDF
Ayman Atef, ZDF
Rushdy, a correspondent with the ZDF news agency, told CPJ that she and her cameraman, Atef, were detained, along with their driver, and held for about an hour at a police station after officers saw them filming physical confrontations between police and voters trying to reach a polling station during runoff parliamentary elections in the northern city of Alexandria. Officials confiscated the journalists’ film.
Sarah al-Deeb, The Associated Press
Al-Deeb, of The Associated Press, was prevented by police from entering a polling station during the runoff parliamentary elections in the northern city of Alexandria. She told CPJ that, at the time, voters trying to get to the polling station were clashing with police who appeared to be barring them from entry. As al-Deeb was speaking to three would-be voters who could not reach the station, three women attacked her, one of them pulling her hair and hitting her on the back of the neck. Al-Deeb said that police, who were close by, did not intervene.
Rida al-Shafie, Abu Dhabi TV
Hany Emara, Abu Dhabi TV
Emara, a reporter for Abu Dhabi TV, told CPJ that he and his cameraman, al-Shafie, were setting up their equipment near a police barricade when they asked a police officer for permission to film in the polling station during the runoff parliamentary elections in the northern city of Alexandria. The officer took the two journalists to a police station, where officials confiscated the tape from the journalists’ camera and held them at the station for about six hours. They were released just as the polling stations were closing.