Eissa ruling expected soon in Egypt

New York, March 24, 2008―The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by an upcoming court ruling in Cairo that might send a leading Egyptian editor to prison. The ruling is expected on March 26.

Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Dustour and one of Egypt’s top critics of President Hosni Mubarak’s 27-year rule, was charged under the Penal Code in September with publishing reports about Mubarak’s health that were “liable to disturb public security and damage public interest.” The case was first hastily submitted to the Emergency State Security Court, an exceptional tribunal that does not allow for appeals and rarely issues acquittals. But it was examined later by a Cairo misdemeanor court following a local and international outcry.

“Eissa’s prosecution shows how Egypt’s authorities shamelessly use the courts to punish outspoken journalists,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.” The court should dismiss this politically motivated case once and for all.”

Eissa’s prosecution occurred in early September after First Lady Suzanne Mubarak told the satellite television station al-Arabiya that her husband’s health was “excellent” and that “there must be punishment either for a journalist, a television program, or newspapers that publishes the rumors.”

Al-Dustour was not the only or the first Egyptian paper to speculate about Mubarak’s health.

“He has been singled out for prosecution because he keeps focusing on the issue of inheritance of power by Mubarak’s son, Gamal,” Mahmoud Kandil, one of Eissa’s lawyers told CPJ. “And the purpose is to find a scapegoat to prompt self-censorship about the inheritance and transition of power in Egypt.”

Kandil said that under the Penal Code, the court might sentence Eissa to up to three years in jail and a fine of up to 20,000 Egyptian Pounds (nearly US$3,600).

Eissa told CPJ that he currently faces 14 cases, most of them filed by members of the ruling national Democratic Party headed by Mubarak, who will turn 80 in May. They accused the editor of tarnishing the image of the country and harming the reputation of its leaders.

“They want to stifle this privately owned press, which is giving them a headache at a time when they want to smoothly hand power to the president’s son. The Egyptian authorities thought the time had come to topple and get rid of this privately owned press,” Eissa told CPJ.

In May, CPJ designated Egypt as one of the worst backsliders on press freedom, citing an increase in the number of legal and physical attacks on the press.