Egyptian journalists accused of ‘insulting armed forces’

New York, March 9, 2012–Egyptian authorities should immediately dismiss a baseless complaint of antistate activities that has been lodged against several journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The case has been referred to military prosecutors as part of a broader practice that has raised constitutional and international concerns.

The complaint names four current journalists among a number of other government critics, accusing them of “inciting the downfall of the state” and “insulting the armed forces,” news reports said. The complainant, a little-known figure named Mohamed Salah Zaghloul, has submitted numerous vague complaints against government critics over the past year, CPJ research shows. On Wednesday, public prosecutor Abdel Maguid Mahmoud referred the complaint to military prosecutors.

The reporters–Reem Maged and Yosri Fouda, who work for the privately owned satellite broadcaster ONTV, and bloggers Alaa Abd el-Fattah and Nawara Negm–have been repeatedly targeted by Egyptian authorities for harassment, CPJ research shows. The journalists are among 12 prominent figures identified in the complaint; all have been critical of the ruling military council.

Egyptian authorities have not disclosed any formal charges as yet in connection with the new complaint. The other individuals targeted in the complaint include presidential contender and veteran journalist Buthayna Kamel; novelist and opposition figure Alaa al-Aswany; Member of Parliament Zyad el-Elaimy; and activists and leading opposition figures Wael Ghonim, Asmaa Mahfouz, George Ishaq, Sameh Naguib, and Mamdouh Hamza. They have also been subjected to sustained smear campaigns and baseless criminal complaints, CPJ research found.

The Military Justice Code states that civilians may be tried in a military court if the alleged offense involves military officers or was committed in an area under military jurisdiction. The current military government has adopted an excessively broad interpretation of the code, effectively considering the entirety of the country to be under its jurisdiction, CPJ research shows. In the past year, more than 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts, where defendants have curtailed rights, the proceedings are opaque, and the prosecution must meet a lower burden of proof. Human rights groups have found that the proceedings fail to meet the standards outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory.

The constitutionality of the practice has been challenged in cases now before Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, CPJ research shows.

“Authorities must end the practice of hauling critics before military prosecutors every time they disagree with something written or said,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “This contrived complaint should be dismissed immediately.”

The journalists have been harassed in the past by the military, its supporters, and its proxies, CPJ research shows. In May, the military summoned Maged for questioning, and Fouda, who has constantly faced pressure and censorship, twice took his show off the air in protest, in May and October. Abd el-Fattah was detained for two months in late October after refusing to be interrogated by military prosecutors and still faces charges of “inciting violence against the military,” among others. In January, Negm was physically assaulted by a mob believed to be made up of supporters of the military.

Dozens of journalists have been questioned by military prosecutors for being critical of the military’s actions, CPJ research shows. Maikel Nabil Sanad, a critical blogger, was imprisoned for close to 10 months for “insulting the military” and stood trial in military courts.