Egyptian court sentences journalist to jail for defamation

New York, October 25, 2012–An Egyptian appellate court should strike down the criminal defamation conviction and prison term handed down this week against a television commentator, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

A court in the southern city of Luxor on Monday convicted Tawfiq Okasha, talk show host and owner of the private satellite broadcaster Al-Faraeen, in absentia and sentenced him to four months in prison on charges of defaming President Mohamed Morsi, according to news reports. Okasha was in Cairo at the time of the sentencing, news reports said. The court did not specify the offending comments that led to Okasha’s conviction, the reports said. The journalist plans to appeal the sentence.

Okasha hosted a controversial talk show called “Egypt Today” on Al-Faraeen and is known for his staunchly anti-Islamic and anti-Brotherhood remarks, news reports said. He was also supportive of the regime of ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, the reports said.

Nasr el-Din Mahmoud Maghazy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and a member of the dissolved people’s assembly, filed the lawsuit against Okasha for insulting the president on his show under Article 179 of the Egyptian Penal Code, which criminalizes insulting the head of state, news reports said.

More than 30 cases have been filed against Okasha on defamation charges, most of which are ongoing although he has been acquitted in some, news reports said. Okasha also faces criminal charges unrelated to journalism, such as stealing electricity, according to news reports.

Al-Faraeen had been suspended in August, but on Saturday, a court allowed it to resume broadcasting, according to news reports.

“Egypt has made great strides in the field of freedom of expression in the past 20 months, so it’s both surprising and disappointing to see journalists being sentenced to prison under archaic criminal defamation laws,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “In a democracy, no journalist should be jailed for ‘insulting the president.’ We urge the appeals court to overturn this verdict.”

Following the steps of the Mubarak regime, current authorities have continued to pursue defamation charges against Egyptian journalists. Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of the private daily Al-Dustour, faces charges of “insulting the president,” according to news reports. His trial is pending. In June, Hanan Youssef, the deputy editor-in-chief of local daily Al-Messa, was fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,654) for defaming the paper’s former editor-in-chief.

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