Leading independent editor sentenced to six months in jail

Leading independent editor sentenced to six months in jail

New York, March 26, 2008―The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the six-month jail term handed down today to a leading Egyptian editor and urges the appeals court to overturn the conviction.

The Boulak Abul Ela Court of Misdemeanor, on the outskirts of Cairo, sentenced Ibrahim Eissa, editor in chief of the independent daily Al-Dustour, to six months in prison for “publishing false information and rumors” about President Hosni Mubarak’s health. The court said the articles were likely to disturb public security and harm the country’s economy. Eissa was forced to post 200 Egyptian Pounds (US$37) as bail to halt implementation of the court ruling until appeal.

CPJ attended today’s hearing, which took place amid tight security and a heavy police presence both outside and inside the courtroom. Judge Sherif Kamel issued the verdict during the hearing, which lasted about 10 minutes. He also threw out six other cases filed against Eissa related to the articles speculating about Mubarak’s health.

Eissa’s lawyers told CPJ they would appeal what they called a politically motivated verdict.

“By sentencing our colleague to prison, Egyptian authorities have once again shown their determination to clamp down on critics in the press through the pernicious use of the courts,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The appeals court should throw out this politically motivated judgment.”

Eissa, who has been dogged for several years by criminal prosecutions, 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 misdemeanor court following a local and international outcry.

Eissa’s prosecution occurred 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 publish the rumors.”

Al-Dustour was neither the only nor the first Egyptian paper to speculate about Mubarak’s health. But Eissa’s critical and sarcastic articles, particularly one published at the end of August in which he said the president in Egypt “is a god and the gods don’t get sick,” prompted anger in official circles and was used later to prosecute him.

“The verdict is a strong message from the regime to warn every journalist against the danger of getting close to the president or criticizing him,” Ibrahim Mansour, executive editor of Al-Dustour, told CPJ. “This is mere schizophrenia. Because they keep claiming that they are committed to freedom of expression at a time when they are issuing court decisions to jail journalists.”

Eissa told CPJ that he currently faces eight 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, in reaction mainly to articles critical of Mubarak’s lengthy rule and of the rumored idea that his son, Gamal, is being groomed for power.

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.