Egyptian court fines five journalists for covering trial

New York, February 26, 2009–The Egyptian judiciary should overturn today’s court decision to impose a fine on five journalists for violating a ban on media coverage of a murder trial, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The trial involves an influential businessman who is a member of President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party.

In a hearing today, the Sayyida Zainab Misdemeanors Court sentenced Magdi al-Galad, Yusri al-Badri, and Faruq al-Dissuqi, respectively the editor and reporters of the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm; Abbas al-Tarabili, editor of the opposition daily Al-Wafd, and reporter Ibrahim Qaraa to a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,803) each.

They were found guilty of violating a November 2008 court decision banning media coverage of the trial of Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a billionaire businessman charged of killing his reputed mistress, Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim.

“We are dismayed by this latest politically motivated court ruling and call on the Egyptian judiciary to overturn it on appeal,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle ‎East and North Africa program coordinator. “We also urge President Mubarak to end the rising attacks on independent and opposition papers and to bring Egyptian legislation in line with international standards for freedom of expression, as he has repeatedly pledged to do.”

Sayyid Abu Zaid, lawyer for the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate told CPJ, that a similar case filed against the state-owned dailies Al-Ahram and Akhbar Al-Yawm for violating the ban on media coverage of the Mustafa case was dropped by prosecutors last November.

Essam Sultan, another lawyer for the defendants, recently told Egypt’s English-language Daily News that the decision to pursue Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Wafd but not the state-owned papers “indicates a double standard.”

“This ruling is shocking,” said Abu Zaid. “It deals a harsh blow to journalists’ right to gather information and to cover cases of public interest.” He described the ruling as a “dangerous precedent” and a “prescription for more blackouts on corruption cases involving influential figures and businessmen” that are close to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. Abu Zaid said he was consulting with the five journalists to appeal what he and other lawyers called an unconstitutional ruling.

The trial of Mustafa and Muhsin al-Sukkari, a former state security officer who is charged with having been paid by Mustafa to murder the pop singer last July in Dubai, resumed in mid-February in Cairo, amid tight security measures. Mustafa, who was recently stripped of his parliamentary immunity in order to face trial, was until his arrest a construction mogul and one of the leading members of the ruling party’s highly influential Policies Committee chaired by Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and heir apparent.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This alert has been updated to reflect the fact that CPJ did not attend the trial.