The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate mounted a widespread campaign to pressure President Hosni Mubarak to fulfill a February 2004 promise to decriminalize press offenses. More than 20 newspapers went on strike for a day in July as part of the campaign, which many journalists credit with the last-minute deletion of a controversial amendment to the penal code. Mubarak removed a provision that would have stipulated prison sentences of up to three years for journalists who defamed public officials by alleging corruption. The provision was aimed at silencing independent and opposition newspapers that had increasingly carried reports on corruption scandals and influence peddling that allegedly involved high-ranking state officials and Mubarak’s son and heir apparent, Gamal Mubarak.
Other amendments lifted some minor restrictions on the media but left intact prison penalties for journalists convicted of insulting the president and foreign heads of state. The National Assembly, controlled by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, passed the package of amendments, which also provided imprisonment for publishing “false” information and insulting state institutions such as the judiciary and armed forces. Prison sentences run as high as five years.
In a move that triggered concerns that the government was attempting to financially cripple outspoken newspapers, the amendment package doubled fines for writers and editors convicted of defamation and a range of vaguely worded offenses. Fines now reach as high as 40,000 Egyptian pounds (US$7,000).
Other restrictive legislation, such as the Law on the Protection of National Unity, the Law on the Security of the Nation and the Citizen, the Law on Political Rights, and the Emergency Law in force since President Mubarak came to power in 1981, may still be used to imprison journalists.
An upsurge in the number of journalists sentenced to jail by the courts, the detention of reporters for weeks without trial, and assaults on journalists by Cairo plainclothes police have prompted many in the local press corps to conclude that Mubarak will never honor his pledge. Many independent journalists said the reform process itself is flawed, leaving Egyptian law far short of international standards for free expression.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights documented 85 cases brought against journalists from February 2004 to July 2006, when newspapers staged the one-day strike. Most of those prosecuted had written about official corruption.
Prominent columnists and intellectuals writing in the beleaguered independent and opposition newspapers questioned the potential for the media to make a significant move toward freedom under a constitution that gives the president sweeping powers, unlimited terms of office, and the ability to silence his critics.
“The media and the judiciary are increasingly targeted and the circle of press freedom is narrowing. We will face the same plight as Tunisian journalists if we fail to take action,” warned Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief, Hussein Abdel Ghani, who was arrested in April for allegedly propagating false news. He was speaking on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, when for the first time in Cairo, journalists and human rights advocates from Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia, backed by CPJ and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a clearinghouse for press freedom monitors, joined to urge Arab rulers to adopt international standards of freedom of expression.
The call came as journalists Saher al-Gad of Al-Geel and Ibrahim Sahari of Al-Alam al-Youm were behind bars for their opposition to Mubarak’s rule. They were arrested in April while covering protests in Cairo against the trial of two prominent judges who publicly denounced the rigging of the 2005 legislative elections.
On February 23, a Cairo criminal appeals court upheld the 2005 conviction and one-year prison sentence against Abdel Nasser al-Zuheiry, a reporter for the independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm, for libeling a former minister of housing. Al-Zuheiry remained free pending further appeal.
Less than two weeks later, following an eight-minute hearing, a Cairo court sentenced in absentia Amira Malash of the independent weekly Al-Fajr to one year in prison for defaming Judge Attia Mohammad Awad in a July 2005 article alleging that he had accepted bribes. She was not immediately jailed.
The sentencing by a Cairo court in June of Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of the independent weeklies Al-Dustour and Sawt al-Umma, and Sahar Zaki, a reporter for Al-Dustour, to a year in prison apiece for publishing a report critical of Mubarak had an unusually chilling effect on the local press. Eissa, one of the most outspoken and intrepid Egyptian journalists, and Zaki were free on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,750) pending appeal.
The case against Eissa stemmed from an April 2005 news item that reported efforts by an Egyptian lawyer to take Mubarak and his family to court on allegations of corruption, including the alleged misuse of foreign aid. The lawyer, Said Abdullah, was also sentenced to a year in jail.
In September, the government banned editions of three European papers that carried pieces about Pope Benedict’s controversial comments on Islam: the French daily Le Figaro, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the weekly international edition of Britain’s The Guardian. In a September 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict cited centuries-old quotations asserting that Islam was spread by the sword. Use of the quotations, which the pope said did not reflect his own opinions, provoked widespread anger in Muslim countries.