Court imposes heavy fines on two weekly journalists

New York, October 15, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns an Egyptian court’s decision on Saturday to levy steep fines against an editor and reporter for an independent weekly that published a satirical piece about a prominent cleric.

A criminal court in Al-Geeza ordered El-Fegr editor Adel Hammouda and writer Mohamed al-Baz to pay fines of 80,000 Egyptian pounds ($14,341) apiece on charges that they had defamed Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi. The court also ordered al-Baz to pay 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($897) directly to Tantawi. Tantawi is the sheikh of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, one of the most prominent educational institutions in the Arab world.

Defense lawyer Nashaat Agha described the size of the fine as unprecedented in press cases. “This is a negative message to newspapers,” Agha said, noting that he would appeal.

“This verdict sends a chilling message to Egyptian journalists that criticism of religious institutions is off-limits,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Satirical journalism is a vital component of a healthy democracy. We urge the courts to overturn this conviction on appeal.”

Al-Baz told CPJ that he and Hammouda were held for three hours after the court decision until they could pay the fines.

The case dates to March 2007 when the newspaper published a satirical piece claiming the sheikh was planning to visit the Vatican. The piece was accompanied by a picture depicting Tantawi in papal garb, according to news reports.

Independent Egyptian journalists face a constant barrage of lawsuits over critical articles, CPJ research shows. On September 28, a court handed down a two-month jail term against Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Al-Dustour, for “publishing false information and rumors” about President Hosni Mubarak’s health. In the face of local and international outcry, President Hussni Mubarak pardoned Eissa this month.