Nobel laureate Mahfouz calls for release of jailed Arab journalists

New York, May 5, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists joins acclaimed Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz in calling on Arab governments to free jailed journalists including two Egyptian reporters detained last week while covering demonstrations in Cairo. Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature, launched his appeal in an interview with the semi-official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram on Wednesday, World Press Freedom day.

“I am calling on this day, World Press Freedom day, for the release of all the journalists imprisoned in the Arab world in cases related to freedom of opinion and for the need to drop all sentences issued against journalists involved in publication cases,” Mahfouz said.

Dozens of journalists face criminal prosecution and the threat of imprisonment in the Arab world under repressive press laws and penal codes that criminalize free speech. At least four journalists are behind bars today for their journalistic work, according to CPJ research.

Egyptian newspaper journalists Saher al Gad of Al-Geel and Ibrahim Sahari of Al-Alam Al-Youm were detained by security agents in Cairo last week. They were covering demonstrations in support of two judges who were appearing before a disciplinary committee for calling parliamentary elections in November and December fraudulent. The reporters have been accused of “disturbing public order,” and a state prosecutor ordered their detention for 15 days. No formal charges have been brought.

Algerian journalist Mohamed Benchicou, publisher of the French-language daily Le Matin, has been in prison since June 14, 2004. He was sentenced to two years in jail after being convicted of violating the country’s currency laws in 2003. The sentence was widely viewed as retaliation for Le Matin‘s critical editorial line against the government.

Mohamed Abbou, a freelancer, has been in jail in Tunisia since March 1, 2005.
Abbou, a human rights lawyer, was handed a prison sentence of three and a half years in connection with an Internet article that allegedly “defamed the judicial process” and was “likely to disturb public order.” Abbou wrote for a banned Tunisian news Web site, Tunisnews, comparing torture in Tunisia’s prisons with that of Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib. An appeals court upheld the verdict on June 10.

“Countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia tell the world how free their press is, while locking up outspoken journalists,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “The international community must take notice when these governments trample on the most basic free press standards by putting journalists behind bars for their work.”

Cooper added: “We call on governments to release our colleagues imprisoned for their work and to do away with laws that restrict press freedom and permit the jailing of journalists for their published work.”