Egypt strikes down jail time, upholds fines against editors

New York, February 2, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes a Cairo appeals court decision to strike down a one-year jail term against four editors, but condemns that the conviction stands for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and his top aides.

On Saturday, appellate court judge Mohamed Samir struck down a one-year jail-term given in September 2007 to four editors for “publishing false information likely to disturb public order.” However, the court upheld a 20,000 Egyptian pound (US$3,540) fine against Ibrahim Eissa of the daily Al-Dustour, Adel Hamouda of the weekly Al-Fajr, Wael el-Abrashi, former editor of Sawt Al-Umma, and Abdel Halim Kandil, former editor of the weekly Al Karama.

“We are relieved that the prison terms have finally been struck down,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “But we condemn the practice of using the judiciary to criminalize critical journalism and spread fear and self-censorship. We call on Egypt’s highest judicial authorities to overturn this politically motivated verdict.”

The court upheld what numerous Egyptian lawyers and reporters have told CPJ is a politically motivated conviction that opened the floodgates to more judicial harassment and punishment of critical journalists. “This ruling does not take us by surprise,” said Essam Eissa, lawyer for Al-Dustour and Sawt al-Umma. “We have gotten used to seeing Egyptian courts overthrow jail terms while upholding fines in similar cases. The two members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) who filed the case have no qualification whatsoever to do so.” He said they are planning to challenge the ruling in criminal court and then in the Court of Cassation.

Abdelhalim Kandil, who is currently editor of Sawt al-Umma, was abducted and stripped of his clothes in 2004 by unidentified men for what he believes were his critical opinions, told CPJ that nearly 90 cases for defamation have been filed against him over the past five years. One of the last cases was filed in 2008 by Ahmed Ezz, an influential businessman and figure of the ruling NDP, the People’s Assembly, which is the lower chamber of Parliament, and a close friend of the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak.

Kandil said the ruling on the editors’ case sets a dangerous precedent. “Anybody now can take a critical journalist to court,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the basic rules of the judiciary or the law. I was found guilty simply because I wrote an opinion piece in which I said that the man who is really ruling Egypt is Gamal Mubarak.”

Like Kandil, Eissa is among the most judicially harassed journalists in the country. In September, an appeals court sentenced him to six months in prison for disseminating “false news” about Mubarak’s health. He was granted a presidential pardon in October. In the latest issue of CPJ’s publication Dangerous Assignments, Eissa said that the “regime’s willingness to accept the media has regressed” and that there is no room for journalistic expression when reporters are threatened “with 32 articles in the penal code and the press regulation law.”

The legal action came after the editors published articles denouncing Mubarak for verbally attacking the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. They also criticized several high-level officials Gamal Mubarak, who, despite officials denials, is believed to be the 80-year-old president’s heir apparent, The Associated Press reported.

The lower court rejected a defamation charge, but found the editors guilty under article 188 of the penal code. The court handed down the maximum sentence stipulated, one year in prison, and also the maximum fine. The lower court’s decision came amid rising attacks on journalists and widespread concern about the future of freedom of expression in the country. The verdict was passed a few months after CPJ designated Egypt as one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom, citing an increase in the number of attacks on the press.