Egyptian journalists face the trials of September

Many in Egypt still dread the month of September. Twenty-seven years ago, the government arbitrarily jailed hundreds of civil society activists of different political and religious leanings, including journalists. The capricious crackdown, which occurred only a few weeks before President Anwar Sadat’s assassination on October 6, 1981, by a radical Islamist was spurred by unsubstantiated and politically motivated charges.

The detainees, among them scores of the country’s most prominent lawyers, academics, and journalists, were charged with fomenting sedition and undermining the regime’s stability and violating its “Law of Shame,” which made it illegal to spread rumors likely to damage the state.

Four editors are due to appear before two Cairo appeal courts later this month for defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his top aides and spreading rumors about the aging president’s health. Surely, they must have in the back of their minds the ominous crackdown on the media and political dissenters that helped lead Egypt to the brink of disaster in September 1981.

The first court hearing–scheduled for September 6–stems from a case filed about two years ago against the four outspoken newspaper editors for allegedly defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his top aides, including his son and likely heir Gamal. Ibrahim Eissa of the daily Al-Dustour, Adel Hamouda of the weekly Al-Fagr, Wael el-Abrashi, former editor of Sawt Al-Umma, and Abdel Halim Kandil, former editor of the weekly Al Karama were sentenced by a minor court on September 13, 2007, to one year in prison and to pay a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,700) each.

The court ruling came as a chilling reminder of the government’s mounting determination to settle scores with the country’s most critical journalists since 2003. Although the media is less stifled in Egypt than it is in other countries in the region, such as Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia, CPJ declared the country to be one of the top 10 backsliders on press freedom in the world.

“There are brave journalists in Egypt, but not press freedom,” Eissa told CPJ. “Their number one achievement is to remove President Mubarak from his God-like pedestal to the position of a president whom you may hold accountable.”

This notorious lawsuit was filed by two lawyers affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which is headed by Mubarak and increasingly influenced by his son Gamal. One of the most outspoken victims of these ensnaring lawsuits, so obviously aimed at silencing critics of Mubarak’s autocratic 27-year rule through tortuous ways, is Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a well-known Egyptian American sociologist and democracy advocate. Ibrahim, who is currently facing five other similar cases, was sentenced in absentia in August to two years in prison for harming Egypt’s “reputation” through his writings in the “foreign press,” reported the state-run Al-Ahram Weekly.

Eissa, like Ibrahim, is on the list of the government’s top enemies. He says that even in the face of such oppression, “Egypt’s brave journalists…have managed to raise awareness about the rampant corruption, torture, and tyranny, and highlighted Egyptians’ daily problems and their strikes and protests.”

Al Agouza Appeal Court in Cairo asked Awatef Abderahman, a respected media expert at Cairo University, to give her thoughts about the articles and columns that prompted the marathon judicial harassment and the one-year jail sentence hovering over the heads of the four editors. On June 21, she said that the journalists had simply exercised their right to criticize government policies.

“It is obvious that those who are defending the ruling National Democratic Party and its symbolic figures have not read the history of the press, which enhanced freedom of opinion and expression,” Abderahman said. She gave amazing examples of court rulings acquitting journalists more critical of the ruling figures under British colonial occupation during the first half of the 20th century than the four editors sued by Mubarak’s supporters.

The second politically motivated lawsuit–scheduled for September 28–involves only Eissa, who, despite 10 years of unrelenting judicial harassment and police intimidation, remains continuously defiant and critical of Mubarak’s uninterrupted grip on power since October 1981. The Boulaq Abul Ela Appeal Court in Cairo is expected to issue its long-awaited verdict at the end of this month. The outspoken editor of Al-Dustour was sentenced in March by a minor court to six months in jail for reporting on alarming rumors about Mubarak’s health in August 2007. Eissa was charged with publishing false rumors that allegedly caused panic among foreign investors and threatened the country’s ailing economy.

Many fear that the judiciary, the total independence of which remains to be gained from the executive branch, would be used to teach a lesson to Egypt’s independent journalists by sending Eissa to jail at the end of September, which coincides this year with the end of the lunar and holy Muslim month of Ramadan. However, they maintain that the four editors (including Eissa) involved in the first case might not be sent to jail, because at least two of them are not thought to be on the list of the government’s top enemies.

First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, whom Eissa portrayed as the country’s most influential figure after Mubarak, said in early September 2007 that those who spread rumors about her husband’s “excellent health” should be punished.

Even though Mubarak publicly promised four years ago to pass a law that would end the imprisonment of journalists for doing their job, the rising number of jail sentences since 2004 handed to journalists, coupled with Egypt’s leading role in the region in muzzling radio and TV broadcasting, does not leave much room for optimism. But the determination of independent journalists and bloggers to keep up the struggle for freedom of expression, however costly it may be, must be reckoned with.