In Egypt, journalists under fire as protests continue

New York, May 25, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by attacks on the Egyptian press related to coverage of alleged election fraud and protests over judicial independence. The Egyptian state security prosecutor brought criminal charges on Wednesday against three journalists who alleged fraud in last year’s parliamentary elections. Security and police officers assaulted several journalists covering demonstrations today in support of judicial independence. And five journalists remain in detention today after being arrested at earlier demonstrations on judicial independence.

“These latest attacks are further evidence of the authorities’ utter contempt for working journalists,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “The government must put an end to this harassment and thuggery at once.”

Charges levied
The prosecutor charged Wael al-Ibrashi and Hoda Abu Bakr, reporters for the independent weekly Sawt al-Umma, and Abdel Hakim Abdel Hamid, editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated weekly Afaq Arabiya, with insulting and defaming Mahmud Burham, the judge in charge of the electoral commission in Dakhaliya province.

The charges stem from December 2005 articles alleging fraud in the fall elections and calling for formal investigations. Al-Ibrashi told CPJ that the story in his paper listed by initials several judges allegedly involved in vote-rigging. A story in Afaq Arabiya took a similar approach, Agence France-Presse reported. The journalists face up to three years in prison, according to local lawyers.

Allegations of election fraud are at the root of demonstrations that first erupted in April. Protesters demonstrated in support of two senior judges, Mahmoud Mekky and Hesham Bastawisi, who were brought before a disciplinary committee after calling the parliamentary elections fraudulent. Mekky was acquitted but Bastawisi censured on May 18. The judges are considered leaders of the Judges Club, a professional advocacy group that has been campaigning for judicial independence. Judges are now overseen by the Ministry of Justice.

Assaults reported
Today, several journalists covering related demonstrations outside the Egyptian Press Syndicate in Cairo were harassed by people believed to be plainclothes security agents or government-sponsored assailants, journalists told CPJ.

Dina Samak and Dina Gameel, correspondents for the BBC, and Jihan Shouban, a reporter for Sawt al-Umma, were driving to a silent protest by judges outside the High Court when a taxi gave chase and halted their vehicle, the BBC correspondents told CPJ. Around 25 people descended on the journalists’ car, breaking the windows, and attempting to pull the journalists out of the car, they said.

The journalists were traveling with Kareem al-Sha’er, the BBC correspondents said. They said he was a journalist trainee, but they did not know his employer. Al-Sha’er was taken by the assailants, they said, and his whereabouts were not immediately known.

Hossam al-Hamalawy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said Egyptian police cordoned off the area outside the Press Syndicate and blocked several journalists from covering the judges’ silent protest. Al-Hamalawy said he tried to get past the police barricade but was pepper-sprayed by a plainclothes security officer. The journalists were not allowed to leave the area for more than an hour.

Journalists still held
And on Tuesday, a state security prosecutor extended for 15 days the detention of two newspaper journalists who were first taken into custody on April 27. Saher al Gad of Al-Geel and Ibrahim Sahari of Al-Alam Al-Youm were at protests on the first day of hearings for the two judges. The journalists were accused of “disturbing public order.”

Nada Al-Kassas, a reporter for the weekly Al-Mawkif Al-Arabi; Alaa Abdel Aziz, a journalist for Afaq Arabiya; and Rasha Azab, an online journalist, saw their detentions extended by 15 days on Sunday, CPJ sources said. They were arrested on May 11.

Last year, CPJ reported that security forces and people believed to have been hired by the ruling party National Democratic Party assaulted numerous reporters covering antigovernment protests and parliamentary elections in November and December.