Al-Jazeera producer charged with harming Egypt’s national interests

New York, January 17, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed that Egyptian authorities have brought criminal charges against an Al-Jazeera producer in connection with her work on a documentary about torture.

Howayda Taha Matwali, who also works as a reporter for the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, was charged after authorities found unedited footage showing re-enactments of reported incidents of torture in Egyptian police stations, Al-Jazeera said. Matwali, an Egyptian, planned to use the re-enactments in a documentary she was preparing for the satellite channel, according to Al-Jazeera.

Egyptian authorities labeled the footage a fabrication and charged Matwali over the weekend with engaging in “activities that would harm the country’s national interests” and “possessing and transferring pictures contradicting the truth and giving an incorrect depiction of the situation in Egypt,” Al-Jazeera reported. Prosecutors told Matwali that she faces up to five years in prison under Egypt’s penal code.

“This case is a sham and reflects this government’s disdain for critical media,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on the Egyptian authorities to immediately drop charges against Howayda Taha Matwali.”

Security officers at Cairo airport confiscated Matwali’s laptop and 50 tapes on January 8 as she was preparing to travel to Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar. Authorities barred her from leaving and, five days later, summoned her to appear before the state security prosecutor. Matwali was arrested on Saturday and released the following day on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,750).

Al-Jazeera said re-enactments are commonly used in its documentaries; actors were used in this case to depict reported incidents. Matwali had obtained permission from the Interior Ministry for the documentary and had received the ministry’s cooperation, according to Al-Jazeera. She interviewed reported torture victims as well as police and other security officers.

An arts committee affiliated with the Interior Ministry, which must approve writings and tapes before they are allowed out of the country, watched tapes of the re-enactments. In a statement, the committee said the tapes showed “scenes of fabricated torture incidents, and assaults by individuals wearing police uniforms on others playing roles of male and female suspects inside studios decorated to look like police stations,” The Associated Press reported.

Al-Jazeera said it was stunned by authorities’ conclusion. “I wish to express my astonishment regarding the apparent confusion by the Egyptian authorities between reconstructed scenes and an actual fabrication in order to mislead viewers,” Aref Hijjawi, head of programs at Al-Jazeera, said in a statement. “I would like to state that passing judgment on any material or footage before it has been edited is considered a questionable and dangerous precedent.”