New York, October 29, 2007—The criminal libel convictions and one-month jail terms handed down Saturday against journalists for an Egyptian opposition daily are part of a government-organized campaign to silence the press and should be overturned, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
The case stems from a complaint filed by lawyers affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party—one in a series of recent criminal libel cases initiated by party-affiliated lawyers, CPJ research shows.
Al-Wafd Editor-in-Chief Anwar al-Hawari told CPJ that a criminal court in the southern city of Assiut convicted him—along with Mahmoud Abaza, the daily’s chairman of the board, and reporter Younes Darwish—in absentia on charges of libeling two lawyers in a March 21 news item. The brief covered a local council meeting that discussed the lawyers’ acquisition of a piece of land belonging to the Ministry of Religious Endowments in a private auction, he said. All three are free pending appeal.
“Another harsh ruling against opposition voices has left Egypt’s press freedoms in tatters,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We’re very disturbed by this sustained pattern of indirectly targeting the press though criminal lawsuits—a pattern that underscores the Egyptian government’s oppressive stance toward the press.”
The two lawyers who brought the criminal lawsuit are members of the ruling National Democratic Party, The Associated Press reported. “This is part of a series of attacks on journalists,” al-Hawari told CPJ. He warned of an “unprecedented” crackdown that will have “grave” consequences.
Al-Wafd is the mouthpiece of the main liberal opposition party Al-Wafd al-Jadid, which is headed by Abaza. Opposition newspapers are among the very few critical sources of news in Egypt today. “How can they convict me in a case I had no idea about and ignore my parliament immunity,” Abaza told the AP.
In a September 24 case, a criminal court convicted al-Hawari, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mahmoud Ghalab, and Politics Editor Amir Salem on a libel complaint filed by 11 lawyers affiliated with the National Democratic Party. They were each sentenced to two years in prison but are free on appeal.
Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Eissa of the daily Al-Dustour is on trial in relation to articles and headlines about President Hosni Mubarak’s allegedly declining health. 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 top aides, including son Gamal Mubarak.
In May, CPJ designated Egypt as one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom, citing an increase in the number of legal and physical attacks on the press.