Egyptian court upholds Al-Jazeera conviction; strikes down prison sentence

Egyptian court upholds Al-Jazeera conviction; strikes down prison sentence

Cairo, February 11, 2008—An appeals court in Cairo today upheld the conviction of an Al-Jazeera journalist charged with harming Egypt’s reputation for her work on a documentary about torture, but struck down her prison term.

In a crowded courtroom in north Cairo, Judge Hazem Wageeh read a statement that upheld a count of “making or possessing pictures likely to harm the country’s reputation” but overturned the conviction of journalist Howayda Taha Matwali for spreading “false news.” The judge threw out the six-month prison sentence Matwali originally had been given in May, but upheld a 20,000 Egyptian pound (US$3,607) fine.

Egypt’s constitution “guarantees freedom of expression, of opinion, and of the press,” the judge said, but Matwali “misused this right by preparing fabricated materials on torture in Egypt.”

CPJ Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna and Middle East representative Kamel Labidi attended today’s hearing, which took place at the Nozha criminal court in Cairo’s Abassiya district. The five-minute hearing was also covered by local and regional news channels.

“The prevention of reporting on torture in Egypt does not help control the damage to the country’s reputation abroad, but further exasperates it,” said Campagna. “We are troubled that the court has upheld this conviction of our colleague, who was bringing to light an issue of intense public interest. We welcome the ruling to spare her imprisonment.”

Last May, Matwali was convicted in connection with her work on a documentary exposing police abuse. The court sentenced Matwali, who also writes for the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, to six months in prison and fined her. She was charged by a state security prosecutor after authorities found unedited footage showing re-enactments of reported incidents of torture in Egyptian police stations. Matwali, an Egyptian, planned to use the re-enactments in a documentary she was preparing for Al-Jazeera and was stopped as she was trying to leave the country for Qatar; security officers at Cairo airport confiscated her laptop and 50 tapes on January 8.

Al-Jazeera said Matwali had obtained permission from the Interior Ministry for the documentary.

“Howayda Taha Matwali did not in any way harm the reputation of Egypt. Her documentary mirrors real acts of torture perpetrated by police officers,” said attorney Rawda Ahmed Sayed, of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, who defended Matwali. “Some of these police officers have been brought to justice and sentenced for these acts of torture.”

In the last year, Egypt’s courts and members of the ruling National Democratic Party have stepped up judicial attacks on the country’s independent press. Several journalists have been taken to court by party members or by the government itself because of their reporting on sensitive political issues. Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Eissa of the daily Al-Dustour is on trial in relation to articles 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 his son Gamal Mubarak.

“Egyptian authorities should use the opportunity of today’s verdict to take immediate steps toward doing away with criminal penalties included in Egypt’s law that are frequently used against members of the independent press,” CPJ’s Labidi said.

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.