Amid a crackdown, three Egyptian editors sentenced to jail

New York, September 26, 2007­­―The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns this week’s convictions of three editors from an opposition daily, which come amid a flurry of criminal lawsuits filed against the press by lawyers affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party.  

A criminal misdemeanor court on Monday convicted Al-Wafd Editor-in-Chief Anwar al-Hawari, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mahmoud Ghalab, and Politics Editor Amir Salem under Article 102 of the penal code for publishing news “liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest,” according to the paper and news reports.

The charges stem from a complaint filed by 11 lawyers affiliated with the National Democratic Party. The lawyers accused the journalists of “publishing false news and erroneously attributing it to the Minister of Justice, harming the Egyptian judiciary and judges,” the independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm reported.

In a January 29 article, Al-Wafd described Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei’s appearance before the legislative committee of the Shura Council, the upper house in Egypt’s parliament, in which he criticized lower court judges. The article quoted Marei as saying that the majority of judges in courts of first instance were incompetent, according to Reuters. Other newspapers also reported the justice minister’s comments, Al-Wafd reported.

“We condemn this harsh sentence, which flies in the face of the most basic norms for a free press,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “This, along with a recent flurry of criminal prosecutions of outspoken journalists, further underscores the alarming erosion of press freedom now under way in Egypt.”

Al-Hawari told CPJ that Al-Wafd and other dailies printed a letter from an aide to the justice minister saying that Marei was misquoted. The newspaper disputed that assertion in court, pointing to a written statement Marei submitted to the lower house of parliament in which he offered a similar view of the competence of lower court judges, Al-Wafd said.

The court sentenced the editors to a two-year prison sentence and the maximum fine of 200 Egyptian pounds (US$36) each, according to news reports. They were also ordered to pay 2001 Egyptian pounds to the complainants, the paper wrote. The editors have appealed and are free on 5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$895) bail apiece.

“We firmly believe that the judiciary will reverse this groundless court ruling because we did not commit any offense or crime,” al-Hawari told CPJ

The decision comes amid rising attacks on journalists and widespread concern about the future of freedom of expression in the country. A lawyer affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party filed two criminal complaints with the prosecutor’s office against Editor-in-Chief Mohammad al-Sayid Said of the newly founded independent daily Al-Badeel, the journalist told CPJ today.

Said told CPJ one of the newly filed complaints stems from a story this month in which the paper criticized the lawyer for filing other lawsuits against journalists. Said told CPJ that he is set to appear October 11 before the prosecutor’s office on libel and insult charges. Said added that the lawyer filed a separate complaint stemming from the paper’s coverage of President Hosni Mubarak’s health in several news items earlier this month. Agence France-Presse said the complaint alleges that the newspaper published “false news.” Said told CPJ that the prosecutor’s office has not yet decided if it will pursue the case.   

But other cases have gone to the courts. Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Eissa of the daily Al-Dustour will appear before a state security court on October 1 in relation to articles and headlines about Mubarak’s allegedly declining health. Gamal Eid, one of Eissa’s lawyers, told CPJ that the prosecutors have refused to hand over the court file disclosing the exact charges against the journalist. Eid said he feared the trial will be protracted, basing his remarks on the lack of transparency and cooperation exhibited in this case thus far.

On September 13, in an unprecedented case, a Cairo court sentenced four independent editors to one-year jail terms for publishing “false information” and defaming Mubarak and his top aides, including son Gamal Mubarak.

The court cases follow a campaign by Egyptian officials and the state-backed press against what they characterize as “rumormongering” by Egyptian newspapers. Earlier this month, Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak gave a rare and strong rebuke of the press in an interview with Al-Arabiya satellite channel, stating that her husband’s health was “excellent” and that “there must be punishment either for a journalist, a television program, or a newspaper that publishes the rumors.”

In May, CPJ designated Egypt as one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom, citing an increase in the number of attacks on the press over the past five years.