Attacks on the Press 2009: Egypt

Top Developments
•  Government is among the region’s worst oppressors of online expression.
•  Several editors fined for reporting on the president and other sensitive topics.

Key Statistic
3: Online journalists imprisoned as of December 1, 2009.

Authorities followed familiar tactics to control news media, pursuing politicized court cases, imposing fines, using regulatory tools, and harassing journalists. With Egypt seeing a burgeoning community of journalistic bloggers, authorities moved aggressively to monitor and control online activity. At least three online journalists were jailed when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.


Main Index
• Regional Analysis:
Human rights coverage spreads despite government pushback
Country Summaries
Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories
Other developments

In February, a judge in Cairo fined five journalists for violating a court order banning news coverage of the murder trial of Egyptian businessman Hisham Talaat Mostafa, who was eventually convicted in the killing of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim. News reports said that fines of 10,000 pounds (US$1,803) were levied against editor Magdi al-Galad and reporters Yusri al-Badri and Faruq al-Dissuqi of the independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm, along with editor Abbas al-Tarabili and reporter Ibrahim Qaraa of the opposition Al-Wafd. Sayyid Abu Zaid, lawyer for the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, told CPJ that similar charges had been filed, but dropped, against the state-owned dailies Al-Ahram and Akhbar Al-Youm.

After highly publicized proceedings, a Cairo appellate court in February struck down one-year jail terms against four editors but upheld 20,000-pound (US$3,540) fines against each of them, according to news reports. The four editors had been charged in 2007 with publishing “false information likely to disturb public order” in connection with stories that raised questions about President Hosni Mubarak’s health at a time when he had been out of public view. The fines were imposed against Ibrahim Eissa of the daily Al-Dustour, Adel Hamouda of the weekly Al-Fajr, Wael el-Abrashi of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, and Abdel Halim Kandil of the weekly Al-Karama.

A principal in the Cairo News Company, which provides production services to news outlets such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC, won acquittal in a politicized prosecution, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Nader Gohar, the company’s managing director, had faced charges of operating broadcasting equipment without authorization. The prosecution was thought to have been prompted by client Al-Jazeera’s coverage of 2008 labor protests in the northern industrial city of Al-Mahalla al-Kobra, which included footage of protesters tearing down a poster of Mubarak, CPJ research showed. Fined in 2008, Gohar won acquittal on appeal in 2009, defense attorney Khaled el-Deeb told CPJ.

With legal and financial pressures facing traditional media, many Egyptian reporters turned to new media tools such as blogs, the video-sharing site YouTube, and the micro-blog Twitter. The government, in turn, has aggressively monitored online information and harassed bloggers, CPJ found in a September special report, “Middle East Bloggers: The Street Leads Online.” CPJ identified Egypt as one of the region’s worst oppressors of online information. Authorities used longstanding repressive tools such as the press law, penal code, and emergency law, which criminalize reporting that the government deems “false” or against “the national interest.” Penalties can range as high as five years in prison and as much as 30,000 Egyptian pounds (US$5,220) in fines.

Authorities also relied on Web-specific regulators such as the Directorate for Computer and Internet Crimes. Egyptian blogger Mostafa El Naggar wrote that the office has engaged in “relentless pursuit of bloggers and citizen journalists, invading their privacy, [and] hacking into their personal accounts.”

Internet traffic in Egypt passes through servers controlled by the state, facilitating the monitoring of content, according to OpenNet Initiative, an academic partnership that studies online censorship. Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said the information gathered while monitoring digital traffic is routinely shared among state agencies and used to identify targets for legal action. “You know you are being watched,” blogger Nora Younis told WorldFocus, a U.S. online and broadcast program. “You know your calls are being tapped. The government is coping with technology, so now we have a new police department called the Internet police. And they say they are after Internet [fraud and theft], but at the end of the day they are the ones who deal with the bloggers.”

Blogger Dia’ Gad was arrested in February and held incommunicado by state security agents after writing critically about Egypt’s border closings with Gaza and restrictions on humanitarian aid, according to reports by Amnesty International and other human rights groups. Gad was released without charge the next month after his case sparked international outcry. Three other bloggers were not as fortunate.

Mosad Suleiman, known online as Mosad Abu Fagr, was still being held in late year despite his acquittal in February 2008 on trumped-up antistate charges. At least 13 judicial orders were issued directing that the journalist be released, but the Interior Ministry used the Emergency Law to circumvent the directives. Immediately after each order of release, the ministry countered with its own administrative order directing Suleiman’s continued detention. The provisions of the Emergency Law are such that the government can use the strategy an unlimited number of times. Suleiman wrote about social and political issues affecting the Bedouin community in Sinai on his blog, Wedna N’ish (We Want to Live).

Blogger Hani Nazeer Aziz, who wrote about Coptic minority issues, the state security apparatus, and local religious officials, was also being held in late year under the Emergency Law. Defense lawyers said they had been prevented from visiting Aziz on multiple occasions, and that their client had been mistreated in prison. All of the material on Aziz’s blog had been deleted by an unidentified third party.

Abdel Karim Suleiman, known online as Karim Amer, was serving a four-year prison term imposed in February 2007, when a court in Alexandria convicted him of insulting Islam and President Mubarak. The verdict was the first in which an Egyptian blogger was convicted explicitly for his work, CPJ research shows. In November 2007, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and the Hisham Mubarak Center for Law reported that Suleiman had been severely beaten by another prisoner and a guard.

Other online journalists faced harassment. Wael Abbas, a popular and award-winning blogger, was briefly detained at the Cairo airport in June after returning from a trip to Sweden. Abbas wrote that his passport and laptop were confiscated and that he was told that “his name appeared on a state security list.” Abbas has been the target of constant harassment from government officials after posting videos of police brutality on his blog in 2006. The same week, the Daily News reported that authorities briefly detained without charge three other bloggers: Magdi Saad and Abd El Rahman Ayyash, who were also members of the banned opposition group Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Abu Khalil.

Conflicts within the profession continued to hinder press freedom. In October, the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate considered whether to expel Hala Mustafa, editor-in-chief of the quarterly magazine Democratiya, after she met with Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen in Cairo, according to international news reports. The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate’s ban against traveling to Israel or meeting with Israelis is considered by many leading journalists as a “weapon put in place by the syndicate” to control its members’ activities, Salah Eissa, editor of the cultural weekly Al-Qahira, told The Associated Press. The case was pending in late year.

Foreign journalists have also been targeted. In October, authorities prevented Swedish freelance reporter Per Bjorklund from entering the country, claiming that he was planning to orchestrate a pro-Palestinian protest, according to news reports. Bjorklund denied any intention of participating in or planning a protest. News reports said the action may have been motivated by Bjorklund’s extensive coverage of Egyptian labor issues.