For the first time in years, Egyptian journalists are cautiously optimistic about prospects for press freedom. President Hosni Mubarak, whose record on press issues has been spotty since he took power in 1981, proposed decriminalizing press offenses as public debate about political reforms gained steam. Journalists, for their part, showed greater willingness to take on the government.
Egypt’s large, state-backed, “semiofficial” daily newspapers, whose editors are appointed by Mubarak, have long been reliable government mouthpieces. The opposition press, meanwhile, has been weakened by years of government pressure and spurious legal attacks.
In 2004, though, journalists said that some editorials and opinion pieces openly questioned Mubarak’s policies, even in daily newspapers such as Al-Ahram (The Pyramids), whose editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Nafie, is a Mubarak appointee and ally. Opposition dailies and weeklies, taking their cue from these semiofficial dailies, were emboldened to criticize Mubarak as well. Most Egyptian publications openly discussed the political future of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, who some believe is being groomed to succeed his father. Several newspapers published pointed criticisms of the younger Mubarak, a marked change from only a year before, when very few covered Gamal Mubarak’s political future, a sensitive topic.
The debut of a new independent Arabic-language daily, Al-Masry al-Youm (The Egyptian Today), was another positive development. Unlike most Egyptian dailies, the paper is politically neutral.
With the debate over democratic reforms in the Middle East as a backdrop, in February Mubarak called for the elimination of criminal penalties for defamation and other press infractions. By year’s end, though, Parliament had not adopted any changes; some journalists, initially pleased with Mubarak’s announcement, began to doubt the timing and extent of any reforms.
Under the 1996 Press Law, journalists may be sentenced to up to two years in prison for defamation. Journalists also face imprisonment under other Penal Code provisions. Together, the laws have been used to prosecute and imprison journalists with some frequency over the years; their mere presence on the books provokes self-censorship, journalists say.
Egyptian courts were still ready to imprison journalists in 2004. In June, Ahmed Ezzedine, a journalist with the independent weekly Al-Osbou (The Week), was sentenced to two years in prison, the maximum term possible, after he was convicted of libeling Egypt’s deputy prime minister and agriculture minister, Youssef Wali. The charges were based on a June 2003 article that accused Wali of giving false testimony at the trial of Maher al-Guindy, the former governor of Giza, who was found guilty of taking bribes in 2002. Ezzedine went into hiding to avoid imprisonment. The case was troubling to journalists who believed that the era of prison sentences was coming to a close.
In November, four men beat and briefly abducted Abdel Halim Kandil, an editor and columnist at the opposition weekly Al-Arabi (The Arab), near his home in Cairo. The attackers took his mobile telephone and glasses before dumping him in the middle of a desert road, stripped to his underwear, with a warning to stop writing about “important people.” Local journalists described Kandil as a bold critic of Mubarak’s regime. His last column, published days before the assault, criticized the Interior Ministry’s handling of the October 7 terrorist attacks in the Sinai, which killed 34 people, including many Israeli tourists.
Egyptian officials can be sensitive to negative coverage in the foreign press. In late January, Charles Levinson, an American freelancer working for several U.S. and regional newspapers, was detained at Cairo’s airport and deported. Levinson was never given a reason, but he believes that two articles he wrote may have triggered his expulsion. A November 20, 2003, story in The Boston Globe and a story the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle described the alleged torture of political detainees in Egypt. In February, Levinson was allowed to return to the country.
Several private television stations have been launched in Egypt in the last three years. The vast majority are entertainment channels, but some feature talk shows on political and economic issues. Egyptian censors monitor content, but the popularity and availability of more freewheeling satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are pushing Egyptian broadcasters to be more aggressive.
At year’s end, Egyptian authorities had made no apparent progress in locating Reda Helal, an editor with Al-Ahram who was reported missing in August 2003. Helal, considered controversial by some because of his outspoken support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, was last seen entering his home in Cairo. CPJ continues to investigate the case.