Press freedom was dealt a triple blow in 2005—in Parliament, in court, and on the street. President Hosni Mubarak failed to honor promises made in 2004 to introduce legislation that would decriminalize press offenses. A criminal court handed jail terms to three journalists from one of the country’s few independent newspapers for defaming a minister. Security forces and thugs believed to have been hired by the ruling party assaulted reporters covering antigovernment protests and parliamentary elections.
In April, a Cairo criminal court sentenced three journalists with the Cairo daily Al Masry al-Youm to one year in prison following an article reporting that authorities had searched the housing minister’s office and that he had been suspended. The newspaper, founded in 2004, stood by the story and appealed the verdict. The case against Abdel Nasser al-Zuheiry, Alaa al-Ghatrifi, and Youssef al-Oumi for “defamation of a public employee” was pending in late 2005. The sentences were imposed a year after Mubarak’s call to eliminate criminal penalties in cases of defamation and other press infractions. But Parliament did not amend the 1996 Press Law, nor other laws—such as the penal code, the 1971 Law on the Protection of National Unity, the 1977 Law on the Security of the Nation and the Citizen, and the Emergency Law, in force since Mubarak assumed power in 1981—under which journalists may be jailed. The 1996 Press Law prescribes prison sentences of up to two years for defamation. The penal code can be used to imprison journalists for “violating public morality” and “damaging national interest.”
On May 25, government supporters beat demonstrators and several foreign and local journalists who were covering a protest, organized by the Kifaya (Enough) movement, against the limited nature of a constitutional amendment to allow more than one candidate to run in presidential elections. Protesters called on Mubarak to step down and accused him of paving the way for his son Gamal to succeed him. Journalists interviewed by CPJ said that they were punched, kicked, and slapped by the assailants, and that Egyptian security forces did not intervene. The journalists said they suspected that some of the assailants were actually plainclothes security agents, although they believed the majority were thugs hired by the ruling National Democratic Party. Some female reporters told CPJ that the assailants groped them.
More than a dozen journalists filed complaints with the authorities against the leadership of the National Democratic Party and security officers. Subsequently, at least two female reporters were pressured by security forces to withdraw their complaints. One journalist, Shaymaa Abol Kheir of the weekly independent newspaper Al-Dustour, who was beaten and groped by female government supporters, said that security agents had conveyed messages to her through relatives and neighbors. Abol Kheir said that agents told her neighbors that her brothers would be detained and that she would face legal charges unless she dropped her complaint.
Another journalist who lodged a formal complaint, Abeer al-Askary, also from Al-Dustour, told local reporters that her family had received a visit from individuals who identified themselves as State Security Intelligence officers, warning her and her family that they would face serious consequences unless she withdrew her complaint. Journalists who spoke to al-Askary told CPJ that she was informed that her siblings would lose their government jobs and that her parents could be detained. Neither journalist dropped her complaint.
No progress was reported in bringing to justice the perpetrators of these assaults and others committed in past years against journalists critical of the government. Nor was any light shed on the disappearance of Reda Helal, deputy editor of the semioffical Al-Ahram newspaper, on August 11, 2003. Helal, whose controversial views, particularly his support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, prompted anger among many in Egypt, mysteriously disappeared from his home in the center of Cairo.
When Egyptians went to the polls for November’s parliamentary election, police and security forces detained, beat, and obstructed several reporters seeking to cover the vote for local and foreign news outlets. Throughout the year, the ability of TV stations to cover demonstrations and meetings was often restricted. On May 13, security forces arrested nine journalists, cameramen, and technicians with the Arabic satellite-TV channel Al-Jazeera, holding them for eight hours. The arrest came as they were covering a special meeting of a judges’ association, in which some 3,000 judges threatened to refuse to supervise the September presidential election unless they were allowed to control the electoral process. In May, Al-Jazeera and other satellite-TV stations were denied access to a hotel in Cairo where Arab human rights defenders were meeting.
Street protests gained momentum in June after Parliament passed amendments to the 1956 Law on Political Rights, which introduced imprisonment and fines for publishing false information on elections or the behavior or morality of candidates.
Various attacks on press freedom, including use of the entire range of laws available to the government to imprison reporters, spurred unprecedented defiance among journalists at a time when the circle of opposition to Mubarak’s rule and the Emergency Law was widening. The Emergency Law gives the president extensive powers to suspend basic freedoms, and it includes the right to arrest suspects and detain them for long periods without trial, to refer civilians to military courts, to prohibit strikes and public meetings, and to censor or close down newspapers in the name of “national security.”
In June, following in the footsteps of magistrates and university professors who had publicly called on the executive branch to stop meddling in judicial and academic matters, journalists formed a body called “Journalists for Change.” It soon became an influential pressure group within the principal media union, the Journalists Syndicate, which in September sent a strong message to the government by re-electing Galal Aref, an opposition figure, as its chairman.
Journalists still face various forms of legal action that could result in imprisonment and heavy fines. A report published in 2005 by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said that “journalists in Egypt suffer numerous forms of discrimination including unfairness in legislation, judicial prosecution of journalists for their writing and opinions, assault and death threats, and sexual assault of female journalists.”
Repeated calls to free the media and to remove the longstanding editors of the so-called “national papers” apparently did not fall on deaf ears. (Egypt has a number of state-backed “semiofficial” daily newspapers.) One such editor was Ibrahim Nafie, former head of Al-Ahram news group and a Mubarak confidant. He had been in his post more than 25 years and was beyond the legal retirement age of 65 when he was dismissed last year.
In July, the upper house of Parliament, which is responsible for state publications, appointed younger editors to head the “national newspapers.” But the criterion of loyalty to Mubarak and his party seemed to have inspired the architects of these appointments. The only editor with a reputation for critical thinking, Hani Shukrallah, of the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, was unexpectedly replaced, even though he had not yet reached retirement age.
The reshuffle coincided with the review by the country’s top administrative court of a case filed by journalists from the state-owned Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar demanding that their editors be replaced for “exceeding the retirement age.”
No sooner had the new editors been appointed than they made multiple expressions of allegiance to Mubarak, particularly in the run-up to Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential election, on September 7. They ridiculed Mubarak’s challengers and claimed that giving the president a fifth six-year term would secure a better future for Egypt.
Internal pressure for democratic reform, coupled with a U.S. call on Mubarak to gradually open up the political system, seemed to have led authorities to grant licenses to independent weeklies, including Al-Dustour and Al-Fagr, and opposition papers, among them, Al-Ghad and Al-Karama. These papers—particularly Al-Dustour, which was banned in 1998 and re-emerged in early 2005—covered sensitive subjects such as Mubarak’s health and the political influence exerted by his wife, Suzanne, and son Gamal.
Nevertheless, nearly 80 percent of journalists still work for state media, which were nationalized in 1961. Many of them are employed by the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), whose TV channels have been losing audiences to Arab satellite-TV channels, particularly Al-Jazeera. ERTU controls nearly 10 percent of the shares of the most popular private Egyptian TV channels, Dream 1 and Dream 2. Like the country’s two private radio stations, Nojoom FM and Nile FM, they focus on entertainment and are not allowed to broadcast news bulletins.
Despite Mubarak’s promise in September to work with the next People’s Assembly to “endorse the needed amendments” to introduce legislation that would decriminalize press offenses, many journalists and human rights defenders agree that the road to press freedom and protection of journalists in Egypt remains long and arduous. “The lack of democracy and transparency, and the prevailing culture of allegiance to the authorities or the state-appointed editors, had a negative impact on the ability of generations of journalists to uphold professional standards and to protect press freedom,” said Karem Yahya, coordinator for Journalists for Change and author of a recent book on the plight of the Egyptian press.
“The legacy of legislative and administrative oppression in the media and other walks of life over the past 50 years makes it difficult for journalists to force the state to loosen its grip over the media,” said Yahya, who himself was for a time barred from the offices of Al-Ahram, where he worked for years.