Egyptian prosecutions continue despite free-speech pledges

New York January 11, 2013–Egyptian authorities are continuing a stream of criminal prosecutions against journalists, despite President Mohamed Morsi’s recent pledge to allow free speech. At least three more criminal cases proceeded this week, on top of four that CPJ documented earlier this month.

Morsi told CNN on Sunday that he was committed to promoting democracy and allowing free speech in the country, news reports said. Essam el-Haddad, the president’s assistant on foreign relations, released a statement the same day that affirmed the country’s support for freedom of speech and the press. But when asked in a press conference about the ongoing legal action against journalists, Yasir Aly, the president’s spokesman, said that the prosecutions were a legitimate way to respond to false claims against the president.

“Morsi is presenting two faces in his discussion of freedom of speech in Egypt, one to the international community and one to journalists inside,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. “He aims to confuse an uninformed audience with vague and contradicting statements that negate established protections for journalists under international law.”

A Cairo prosecutor launched an investigation on Wednesday against Gamal Fahmy, a columnist for the independent Tahrir paper, after receiving a complaint from the president’s office against the journalist, according to news reports. The complaint accused Fahmy of “insulting the president,” the reports said.

Local news accounts have reported that Fahmy is accused of insulting the president because of comments he made on December 27 to the Al-Arabiya news channel in connection with the December 12 death of journalist Al-Hosseiny Abou Deif. A person identified by witnesses as a Muslim Brotherhood supporter shot Abou Deif in the head with a rubber bullet. Fahmy said that Abou Deif was targeted because he had exposed Morsi’s “abuse of power” in including his family member in a mass presidential pardon last year. Morsi’s brother-in-law had been convicted of bribery and imprisoned.

In an unrelated case, a criminal court in Cairo handed a one-year prison sentence on Monday to El-Walid Ismail, another Tahrir reporter, according to news reports. Ismail was convicted of attacking a police officer during the trial of Hosni Mubarak in last year. Ismail appealed to the North Cairo prosecutor on Thursday and said he had never been questioned or told of the charges against him. The prosecutor suspended his detention pending a further investigation, Tahrir reported.

Egyptian soldiers on Friday arrested Muhamed Sabry, a freelance photographer, while he was filming border areas in East Sinai, where the army has banned the purchase of land. Sabry’s report was for Reuters, his wife told the news website Global Post.

Sabry was charged with being in a military zone illegally and photographing a military facility without permission, according to a spokesman of the Egyptian army. He was released on bail on Wednesday and ordered to appear at the Ismaliya Military Court on Tuesday, news reports said.

Sabry is also a member of the No Military Trials campaign, an Egyptian coalition of human rights groups that has exposed cases of army violations against citizens in the last two years. He established a nonprofit, called “For Sinai,” that documents violations by the army.

Sabry’s trial will take place in military court, a first under the new constitution. Local and international human rights and press freedom organizations have repeatedly called on Egyptian authorities to halt their practice of trying civilians in military courts. CPJ has said the new constitution lacks any guarantees of press freedom.

  • For more data and analysis on Egypt, visit CPJ’s Egypt pagehere.