Egypt sentences journalists to prison for ‘publishing false news’

New York, January 13, 2016 — The Committee to Protect Journalists on Wednesday condemned a Cairo court’s sentencing of three journalists and one press freedom advocate to three years in prison each on charges of “publishing false news” and belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group.

Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab Criminal Court on Sunday sentenced Mohamed Adly, a correspondent for the independent newspaper Tahrir; Hamdy Mokhtar, a photojournalist for the opposition news website El-Shaab el-Jadeed; freelance journalist Sherif Ashraf; and Aboubakr Khallaf, the head of an electronic media syndicate, to three years in prison each. Khallaf was the only one of the four defendants present in court. The others were sentenced in absentia, according to news reports.

“Egypt faces serious problems. Journalists practicing journalism are not one of them,” CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said in Washington D.C. “We call on authorities to reverse these convictions on appeal.”

Ashraf, the freelance journalist, told local press freedom group Journalists Against Torture Observatory that he was not aware of the Sunday court hearing. Two weeks prior, prosecutors had told his lawyers that the case against him, Mokhtar, and Adly would be dropped, Ashraf told the group.

Police arrested Adly, Mokhtar, and Ashraf on July 1, 2015, outside of Cairo’s Zeinhom morgue, where they were reporting on the deaths of nine Muslim Brotherhood members killed by security forces that day, according to police and news reports. The journalists were held for two months on charges of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group and spreading false news, then each released on 10,000 Egyptian pounds’ (US$1,277) bail on August 31.

The three journalists are not in police custody and will appeal the verdict, according to reports.

Aboubakr Khallaf, the head of the independent Electronic Media Syndicate (EMS) who was sentenced with the three journalists, was arrested on July 21, 2015, days after state-owned newspaper Akhbar al-Youm published an article alleging that EMS was affiliated with and funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. The syndicate trains and supports online journalists in Egypt. EMS’s website has been inactive since Khallaf’s arrest, although it published a statement in September denying all allegations against it and against Khallaf.

The court on Sunday ordered Khallaf released on 1,200 Egyptian pounds’ (US$153) bail, pending appeal, according to reports. CPJ was unable to determine whether he remains in custody. Appeal proceedings are scheduled to being on March 17, according to news reports.

In further moves against the press, Egyptian prosecutors on Monday pursued criminal investigations in response to complaints citizens had filed against several journalists for allegedly insulting the judiciary, according to news reports. Prosecutors are investigating editor and talk show host Ibrahim Eissa and writer Ahmed Samer over an article Samer wrote for Al-Maqal newspaper, which Eissa edits. The December 30, 2015, article criticized the imprisonment of television host Islam al-Behery on blasphemy charges.

Prosecutors are also investigating television hosts Lamees al-Hadidy and Youssef al-Hosseiny for comments made on air regarding al-Behery’s sentence, according to news reports.

In a separate procedure, prosecutors on January 6 said they would bring six journalists to trial on defamation charges brought in a complaint by Minister of Justice Ahmed al-Zend. Zend had complained that the journalists defamed him by publishing stories in 2014 alleging that he had sold state-owned land to a relative at below-market prices during his former post as head of the Judges’ Club.

The journalists referred to trial in the case are

  • Abdelhaleem Qandil, editor of the privately owned newspaper Sawt al-Ummah
  • Gamal Sultan and Mahmoud Sultan, editors of the privately owned newspaper Al-Mesryoon
  • Iman Yehia, a reporter at Al-Mesryoon
  • Hisham Younis, editor of the state-owned news portal Ahram Gate
  • Ahmed Amer, journalist at Ahram Gate