Egypt took a lead role in developing a regional charter designed to restrict satellite broadcasting throughout the Arab world. At the behest of President Hosni Mubarak, parliament extended the 27-year-old Emergency Law, keeping intact for two additional years a key tool for stifling free expression. In this environment, journalists continued to fend off a rash of politically motivated court cases filed by members of the ruling National Democratic Party and other government surrogates.
Four years after Mubarak promised to liberalize laws restricting news media–a pledge that remains unfulfilled–conditions remained repressive for the press.
The government’s most significant step backward came in February, when Egyptian Information Minister Anas al-Fiqi and his Saudi counterpart, Iyad Madani, initiated a plan for pan-Arab regulation of satellite television. The resulting document, “Principles for Organizing Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region,” was adopted by the Arab League’s council of information ministers. The principles seek to ban material that has “negative influence on social peace and national unity” or that contradicts “the principles of Arab solidarity.” The document calls on each of the 22 member states to take “necessary legislative measures to deal with violations.”
Egyptian authorities acted in the spirit of the new document in April. Nilesat, the government-owned satellite transmission company, abruptly stopped carrying London-based Al-Hiwar Television. Al-Hiwar featured talk shows such as “People’s Rights,” which often invited human rights activists, and “Egyptian Papers,” which hosted prominent government critics. Amin Bassiouni, Nilesat’s chairman, said the broadcaster failed to request a renewal of its contract “in a timely fashion.”
In May, parliament agreed to extend the Emergency Law enacted after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Local and international human rights groups condemned the extension and noted that Mubarak had promised to abolish the measure. The state-backed National Council of Human Rights, headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, also argued that the extension was not justified. The Emergency Law gives the president powers to suspend basic freedoms, enables authorities to detain people for prolonged periods without trial, and allows officials to censor or close newspapers in the name of national security.
Throughout the year, critical battles for press freedom were fought in Egyptian courtrooms. An astonishing wave of lawsuits, criminal complaints, and summonses–numbering in the hundreds–has been filed against Egyptian writers, editors, and bloggers in the last two years. Some journalists faced more than a dozen complaints, requiring them to appear in courthouses and police stations multiple times a week. In the vast majority of cases, the complaints were brought not by the government but by surrogates. Lawyers for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) were the most prolific, taking advantage of Egyptian legal practice known as hisba, in which citizens bring lawsuits in the name of public interest.
The case of four independent editors charged with “publishing false information likely to disturb public order” illustrated the tactic. The charges were triggered by articles critical of Mubarak and top aides, including his son and potential successor, Gamal. The four editors, convicted in 2007 and each sentenced to a year in prison, argued their case throughout the year in appellate proceedings that drew international attention. Two NDP lawyers had accused the editors–Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the daily Al-Dustour; Wael al-Abrashy, former editor of the weekly Sawt Al-Umma; Adel Hammouda, editor of the weekly Al-Fajr; and Abdel Halim Kandil, former editor of the weekly Al-Karama–of spreading false information about Mubarak and his top aides.
Awatef Abdel-Rahman, a Cairo University journalism professor called by the court as an expert witness during a June appellate hearing, testified that the judiciary has been less tolerant of critical journalism under Mubarak than it was under the British occupation of more than 80 years ago. She said the convictions should be tossed out “to protect the reputation of the regime.” Abdel-Rahman also urged Egyptian authorities to bring the country’s legislation in conformity with international standards for free expression and to stop “using the penal code to criminalize freedom of expression and press freedom.” The appellate ruling was pending in late year.
Eissa faced prison in another high-profile case. On September 28, a Cairo appellate court sentenced him to two months in jail for “publishing false information” about the health of the 80-year-old Mubarak. Eissa was among a number of journalists who wrote about Mubarak’s unexplained absence from public view in summer 2007–coverage that was publicly rebuked by the president’s wife, Suzanne. In an unusual move, government prosecutors brought charges directly against Eissa.
After the sentence drew widespread condemnation in Egypt and throughout the world, Mubarak issued a presidential pardon. CPJ and other organizations welcomed the decision and called again for the decriminalization of so-called press offenses. Eissa still faced charges in more than a dozen other cases in late year.
One of the country’s leading clerics brought a successful defamation case against two journalists. In October, a criminal court in Al-Geeza ordered Al-Fajr editor Hammouda and writer Mohamed al-Baz to pay fines of 80,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,341) each on charges that they had defamed Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the pre-eminent higher educational and religious institution in Sunni Islam. The case dated to March 2007 when the newspaper published a satirical article claiming the sheik was planning to visit the Vatican. The piece was accompanied by a picture depicting Tantawi in papal garb, according to news reports. Tantawi had taken an aggressive public stance against the news media in 2007 when he said that that those found guilty of libel “should receive 80 lashes.”
A journalist and a media support worker were detained with little or no due process. Hossam al-Wakeel, a reporter for Al-Dustour, was arrested in September while covering protests over the closing of a private school in Alexandria, his lawyer, Khalaf Bayyoumi, told CPJ. Al-Wakeel was held for about a month on allegations of “assaulting and defaming a law-enforcement officer” and “blocking street traffic.” He had not been formally charged by late year.
In April, interpreter Mohammed Salah Ahmed Maree was detained while working with James Buck, a U.S. photographer covering riots in the northern industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra. Buck was released the next day after the U.S. Embassy intervened, but Maree was held for nearly three months before being freed without charge. CPJ protested the prolonged detention in a letter to Interior Minister Habib al-Adly.
Two television stations were raided. Authorities cited regulatory violations in both cases, although police moved in after the stations had produced sensitive material. In April, police raided the offices of the Cairo News Company (CNC), which provides technical support to broadcasters, and confiscated its transmission equipment. The raid came after Al-Jazeera broadcast CNC footage of social unrest in Mahalla al-Kobra, including scenes of protesters tearing down posters of Mubarak. Nader Gohar, CNC’s owner, was fined 150,000 Egyptian pounds (US$27,000) for operating broadcasting equipment without authorization. Gohar appealed the ruling.
Raising similar allegations of operating without permission, police raided the Cairo office of the Iranian state-owned Arabic Al-Alam Television in July and confiscated computers, cameras, and videotapes. The raid coincided with the release of an Iranian film depicting the assassination of Sadat in a positive light. Sadat’s decision to host the exiled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi led to the breaking of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1979.
In November, a Cairo court banned media coverage of the murder trial of Hisham Talaat Moustafa, the billionaire businessman accused of ordering the murder of his reputed mistress, Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim. The dailies Al-Masry al-Youm and Al-Wafd defied the ban and faced charges that were pending in late year. Security agents had earlier seized newsstand copies of the independent dailies Al-Dustour and Al-Badil that carried stories about the case, according to news reports.
Developments were reported in two prominent 2007 cases. In February, a Cairo appellate court upheld the conviction of an Al-Jazeera journalist charged with harming Egypt’s reputation. The court struck down a six-month prison sentence given to the journalist, Howayda Taha Matwali, while leaving intact a 20,000 Egyptian pound (US$3,607) fine. Matwali had been convicted in 2007 after authorities found unedited footage showing re-enactments of reported torture sessions in Egyptian police stations. Matwali, an Egyptian, planned to use the re-enactments in a documentary about police brutality.
Blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman, sentenced in 2007 to four years in prison for defaming Islam and Mubarak, was in poor health at Borg Al-Arab Prison, the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information reported in August. The prosecution of Suleiman, also known as Karim Amer, the first Egyptian blogger to stand trial for his work, had a chilling effect on other bloggers. “Some chose to stop blogging after what happened to Karim and the rise in intimidation and threats to anyone working on freedom of expression issue,” Wael Abbas, one of the country’s most prominent bloggers, told CPJ.
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