Egyptian editor questioned over reports about Mubarak’s health

New York, September 6, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about the case of a leading independent Egyptian editor who is being investigated by a state security prosecutor for reporting about the allegedly declining health of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent daily Al-Dustour, was questioned for several hours by prosecutors Wednesday outside Cairo on accusations that he published reports “likely to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm to or damage to the public interest,” according to Eissa’s lawyers. The accusations, crimes under Article 102 of the Egyptian Penal Code that carry stiff prison sentences, stem from recent front-page headlines and an opinion piece in Al-Dustour about recent speculation about Mubarak’s failing health.

“If the government is unhappy about media speculation then it should provide the public with accurate and reliable information, not threaten journalists with prosecution,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “This spurious investigation should be dismissed at once.”

The head of the office of the state security prosecutor interrogated Eissa about the meaning of headlines that implied that “the future of Egypt would depend on decisions President Mubarak might take in a moment of sickness, and that he had blood circulation problems,” Gamal Eid, one of Eissa’s lawyer’s, told CPJ. “It was an inquisition.”  His paper also published an opinion piece defending Egyptians’ right to know about the aging president’s health and sharply criticizing the government’s failure to keep them informed.

In recent weeks, speculation in the Egyptian press about the 79-year-old leader’s health has been rife—something many journalists blame on the absence of reliable information from officials on the matter. The speculation abated after Mubarak was recently seen on television receiving Jordan’s King Abdullah and other European politicians.

“Eissa simply reported what was on everybody’s mind in Egypt,” said Mahmoud Kandil, another of the editor’s lawyers. “The purpose of his [questioning] was to spread fear among Egyptian journalists.”

The investigation of Eissa was launched after an outcry by Egyptian officials and the state-backed press criticizing rumormongering by Egyptian newspapers. Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak also made a rare and strong rebuke of the press in an interview with Al-Arabia 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 a related development Monday, the government-controlled Supreme Press Council, which issues licenses and guidelines to newspapers, said it had formed two commissions composed of media and legal experts to assess press coverage of Mubarak’s health and to “decide what legal measures should be taken,” the council said in a statement.

Eissa and his newspaper have frequently been targeted by Egyptian courts for their independent news coverage. Eissa and three other editors are due to appear in court in Cairo on September 13 on charges of allegedly insulting President Mubarak and his top aides, including his son Gamal, whose rising influence within the ruling National Democratic Party spurred speculation that he might be the country’s next president.

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.

Earlier this week, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights confirmed in its annual report for 2006 that attacks on freedom of expression and the press and the prosecution of journalists for “expressing their opinions” were on the rise.