Egypt Briefing: Mubarak Puts the Press On Trial

On July 1, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met in Washington, D.C. with President Clinton-the Egyptian leader’s third such visit to the White House in the last four years. The scheduled meeting came at a time when Egyptian authorities stepped up their attacks against the country’s independent and opposition press.
On May 3, 1999, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ named Mubarak one of the world’s 10 Enemies of the Press. The selection followed a year that saw a sharp deterioration in press freedom in Egypt. In 1998, CPJ for the first time documented cases of journalists imprisoned for libel in Egypt: four were sent to jail under the country’s harsh press code. According to the respected Cairo-based Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA), another 72 journalists faced possible prison time in cases before the courts or under investigation.

Egypt’s laws governing the press are among the most severe in the region. The current press code, ratified into law by Mubarak in 1996, stipulates prison sentences of up to one year for journalists convicted of defamation (up to two years if the suit is filed by a public official). Fines can reach 20,000LE (US$5,900) for each offense. Other provisions of the penal code–such as those proscribing “inciting hatred,” “violating public morality,” “harming the national economy,” and offending a foreign head of state–pose further threats to journalists and carry prison sentences of one to two years. Calls from journalists and local and international NGOs to abolish the penalty of imprisonment for libel and publication-related offenses continue to be ignored by the government.

In the first half of 1999, authorities have kept up pressure on journalists. Already, nine reporters and editors have been placed under investigation or sent to trial by prosecutors for libel or other alleged publications offenses. If convicted, they face between one to two years in prison, along with stiff fines.

In addition to criminal prosecutions, authorities have actively censored local and foreign publications during the past year. A leading independent newspaper, the weekly Al-Dustur, was shut down by the Ministry of Information in February 1998 for publishing a communiquŽ allegedly issued by an armed Islamist group threatening Coptic Christian businessmen. A second paper, the weekly Sawt al-Umma (composed of some former staff members from Al-Dustur) was closed in February 1999 by the government’s Higher Press Council (HPC) on technical grounds. The HPC charged that the newspaper’s parent company failed to report new shareholders.

Government censorship of so-called “off-shore” publications-publications that register abroad in order to circumvent government restrictions on publishing licenses-intensified last year and remains a threat. All publications that register in foreign countries are subject to screening by the Ministry of Information. As a result, the Ministry has censored numerous editions of respected publications including the weekly Middle East Times and the fortnightly Cairo Times during the past year. It has also banned dozens of issues of foreign publications like the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabiin response to what authorities have deemed their unfavorable coverage of Egyptian affairs.

As a major recipient of U.S. foreign assistance and a leading U.S. ally in the Middle East, the Egyptian government, CPJ believes, should be held accountable for its actions to stifle press freedom in Egypt. Included in this briefing are links to the Egyptian government’s ongoing restrictions of the press: