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memri
October 16, 2007 No.
396

In Egypt, Debate on Press Freedom Follows Imprisonment of Opposition Press Editors

By: L. Azuri*

Recently, Egyptian courts handed down prison sentences for editors of Egypt's opposition press for publishing material against senior government officials. These rulings have sparked public debate over freedom of the press in Egypt; the debate is also fueled by unconfirmed reports on the declining health of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Human rights organization, the Egyptian Journalists Association, and the convicted editors themselves have condemned these rulings, calling them an attack on freedom of expression. In an interview, President Mubarak stated that he believed in freedom of the press, and reiterated his promise to abolish prison sentences for journalists provided that they act according to professional ethics and with sincere intent to safeguard national interests.

Articles in the Egyptian government press in support of these court rulings claimed that the issue concerned boundaries that the journalists should not have crossed, and that court decisions must not be interfered with. Other articles were critical of the rulings, on grounds that they contradicted democratic principles.

The following are excerpts from the articles:

Egyptian Court: Freedom to Publish News is Not Absolute

On September 13, four editors of Egypt's opposition press were sentenced to one year's imprisonment after they were found guilty of spreading false information and of reviling senior government officials, among them Gamal Mubarak and Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif, with intent to sabotage state security. The convicted editors – editor of the weekly Sawt Al-Umma Wael Al-Abrashi, editor of the daily Al-Dustour Ibrahim 'Issa, editor of the weekly Al-Fajr 'Adel Hammouda, and editor of Al-Karama 'Abd Al-Halim Qandil – were also sentenced to forced labor and fined 20,000 Egyptian lira, and bail was set at 10,000 Egyptian lira for each.[1]

The verdict stated: "The accused have used their pens to attack and to spread lies, taking advantage of their positions as journalists. The expressions [that they used] included abusive language, and were not meant to promote the public good, but to humiliate and disparage National Democratic Party leaders. These expressions went beyond the boundaries of criticism, thereby undermining the journalistic code of honor by spreading false and unverified information...[2] An individual's freedom to disseminate information relevant to the public interest is not absolute; it is limited by society's right to protect its interest, and by the citizens' prerogative to obtain accurate news regarding all matters concerning the public..."[3]

At another court hearing, in September 2007, editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Al-Wafd Anwar Al-Hawari, his assistant Mahmoud Ghallab, and political editor Amir Salem were sentenced to two years of forced labor and to pay monetary compensation to the plaintiff; they were also fined, and bail was set for them. The charges against them were pressed by eleven NDP attorneys [who accused them] of falsely publicizing that Justice Minister Mamdouh Mar'i had expressed opinions against the legal system before the Shura Council.[4]

On September 27, Sawt Al-Umma editor Wael Abrashi was sentenced to an additional two months in prison and bail was set for him at 100 Egyptian lira, after he was convicted of harming the good name of businessman 'Ali Muhammad Ibrahim by falsely accusing him of embezzling public funds.[5]

Al-Dustour editor Ibrahim 'Issa is to stand trial in early October 2007, on charges of spreading false rumors about Mubarak's deteriorating health, which allegedly harm Egypt's economic interests.

Mubarak: Freedom of the Press Must Not Be Taken Advantage Of to Voice Harmful Criticism

In a telephone interview on press freedom, Mubarak told the editor of the Egyptian weekly Al-Usbu' Moustafa Bakri: "My belief in freedom of the press will never be undermined, and neither will my efforts to expand this freedom be affected by a few violations of journalistic and professional values, of the journalist's code of honor, and of the rules of the Journalists Association. My belief [in freedom of the press] becomes stronger by the day, despite the upswing in errors and in the violation [of such norms]. My belief in freedom of the press is manifest in [my] protection of it, and in [my] objections to any interference in journalistic affairs by elements from within or from without.

"Therefore, I want you, and all journalists and columnists, to rest assured that this freedom will never be curtailed, and that we will never revert to the era of censorship and of limitation of freedoms. There is a law which must be obeyed, [and which states that] anyone who violates the journalistic code of honor or threatens the country's peace must stand trial. However, this freedom is protected by law and by the constitution. It is here to stay. It is an asset that belongs to the Egyptian people, and not a gift that the ruler may bestow upon them or take back at whim.

"I have nothing against the freedom of criticism. Constructive criticism is a societal need, and its function is to inform the decision maker of society's shortcomings. However, there is a difference between constructive criticism, whose object is to promote the good of society, and harmful criticism, which seeks to destroy its achievements and to undermine its values and principles... [Destructive criticism] is not really criticism. It is the exploitation of press freedom in a way that serves other elements that [threaten] society's security and stability...

"I say to all my sons in the field of journalism: Everyone must understand that any freedom entails obligation and responsibility... No society would agree that a few columnists should become tools for incitement to anarchy, and that freedom should be exploited in a negative manner, which runs against its [true] objectives and aims... I do not distinguish between government newspapers, party newspapers and independent newspapers. All are Egyptian and all are national – which is why I make a point of monitoring them all..."

Regarding his February 2004 decision to reverse the jail sentences of journalists accused of violating publication regulations, Mubarak stated: "At that point, I believed that reversing jail sentences for the cases pertaining to publication would lead to the expansion of freedom of criticism. But at the same time, I was hoping for more commitment and responsibility [by journalists], and that in the event of violation, the responsible bodies – in particular the Journalists Association – would intervene to protect the profession from infringements and errors. My intent was that people involved in journalism should themselves bear the responsibility for purging it of actions... that contravene the journalistic code of honor, harm the public and the motherland, and threaten its security..."

As to rumors of his deteriorating health, which have been circulating in Egypt, Mubarak said: "No one is denying the press the right to refer to any rumor, even if it concerns the president. But there is a big difference between [relaying] accurate information and fabricating lies... with an ulterior motive to undermine stability and to sow confusion and panic among investors – which impacts the stock market and the banks..."

Finally Mubarak stated: "I have never – not once – interfered to prevent a journalist or a [television] presenter [from expressing himself], irrespective of his opinions... I call on journalists and writers to assume this responsibility, and to rise above trivial matters, lest freedom of the press reach a dead end."[6]

Convicted Editor: We Face Unprecedented Collective Slaughter

The convicted editors reacted angrily to their prison sentence. Al-Fajr editor 'Adel Hammouda protested: "Verdicts against journalists fetter [our] vocation, deprive it of freedom, and transform it from a profession into torture... If we write and are punished for our work, the fate of all journalists will be the same – including those working for government newspapers... – and in the final count, we are all on our way to prison." Hammouda added: "I will continue writing in the same way, because I base my writing on true facts and documents."

Sawt Al-Umma editor Wael Al-Abrashi also promised to continue his writing without change, "out of loyalty to the public and to the motherland – not to the regime and the government." He went on to state: "It is inconceivable for us to change because of a [court decision]. Even if we go to jail, we will come out and [continue to] work in journalism... What happened proves that we are facing collective slaughter unprecedented in Egypt's history..." He said that recent events showed that no journalist could carry out his work unless he swore complete allegiance to the NDP, treating it as a sacrosanct party free of failings that none might criticize.[7]

Al-Dustour editor Ibrahim 'Issa said: "These verdicts are part of the campaign against the freedom of the press. It is clear that press freedom has become a headache to the government officials, and deprives them of sleep, especially with regard to the matter of the transfer of power from President Mubarak to his son Gamal. They are utterly terrified of the [popular] reactions, and so have embarked on a kind of project to subdue the masses, using means that are available and familiar to them – namely, security measures – instead of calming [the public]... That is why the regime has raised the sword against independent and opposition papers that incite against it and annoy it – especially against those that know how to speak out, or are not subordinate to it..."[8]

Al-Wafd editor Anwar Al-Hawari responded to his prison sentence: "My only response to this verdict is no response... Apparently, there are people who specialize in framing journalists, and we are paying the price for defending freedom of the press – a stance taken recently by Al-Wafd... Freedom of the press is a principle to which we will adhere forever, and which we will not abandon..."[9]

Human Rights Organizations and Egyptian Journalists Association Against the Verdict

Egyptian Organization for Human Rights Secretary-General Hafez Abu Sa'da stated that the verdict showed the extent of the deterioration of freedom of opinion and expression in Egypt. He said that the plaintiffs had had no legal right to file the lawsuit, since the newspapers' publication of the articles had caused no damage.[10]

The Egyptian Journalists Association likewise condemned the verdict, calling it a declaration of war on freedom of opinion and a black day in the history of journalism.[11] Association president Galal 'Aref said, "The association will not remain silent in the face of the aggressive attack on journalism, journalists, and freedom of opinion and expression." 'Aref added that the verdict threatened the political process and led to its stagnation, and called it "a menace to every courageous writer who opposed any policy that, in his eyes, was not for the good of the motherland."[12]

Following a decision at an emergency association meeting, 22 non-government papers suspended publication on October 7, 2007, in protest against the verdict. At the meeting it was also decided to consider additional sanctions, such as filing a complaint against the presiding judge, as well as having editorial staff hold demonstrations and strikes in front of Egypt's parliamentary buildings.[13] In addition, the head of the Journalists Association formed a committee to negotiate with all government elements involved to resolve the crisis.[14] At the same time, the Journalists Association, the Bar Association, and the Writer's Union announced the establishment of a unified front to deal with the ramifications of the verdict.[15]

Supporters of the Verdict: The Legal System Must Not Be Interfered With

While all journalists emphasized the importance of free journalism in op-eds in the Egyptian press, some justified the verdict, stating that freedom of expression was not an absolute privilege and that journalists were not entitled to write anything that came into their heads.

Editor of the Egyptian government weekly October Isma'il Muntasir wrote in an editorial: "Most of the private newspapers, including the three that were spreading false rumors regarding the president's health, are lamenting and bemoaning the suppression of freedom and the lack of democracy – while the very existence of these papers is the strongest proof that freedom and democracy exist. The [material] published by these papers do not justify [claims that], in Egypt, freedom is curtailed and democracy is absent... Those in charge of these papers must realize that there are boundaries [that must not be crossed, such as] harming Egypt's security and stability... its economy, and its policy..."[16]

Editor of the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef Karam Gaber also defended the court ruling, stating that legal decisions must not be interfered with: "The state is not to blame for the journalists' imprisonment, and neither is the president... The court issued a precedent ruling to imprison four editors-in-chief of independent newspapers [in] a hearing that proceeded according to the correct protocol, [with the participation] of the prosecutor and the [defense] lawyers. The court offered [the accused] the option of paying a fine and appealing the verdict, and issued the justification [for the verdict]. Whether the [judge] hit or missed – such is the law... No regime or ruler is above the legal system, and its workings must not be interfered with..."

According to Gaber, with the approach of election day "more and more mockery, wails, laments and moaning will be heard about the freedom of journalism and the persecution of journalists..." He added: "The impending danger is the politicization of everything... It is inconceivable that the press should become judge, arbiter, and executioner... The impending danger stems from [the fact that] an enormous number of papers and publications are fighting over a narrow sector of readership, and from [the fact] that some journalists at times become salesmen, snatching the buyer at the store entrance – in the middle of the city, and in broad daylight – to push on them defective wares. The impending danger is the proliferation of [ties] between journalism and capital, and [the possibility] that journalists might take on the role of investors... The danger is not in the ruling to imprison the four editors, since they can appeal and get an acquittal... The danger lurks within journalism [itself]..."[17]

Columnists Against the Verdict: Abolish Prison Sentences for Journalistic Publications

Columnists in the Egyptian press also expressed reservations about the verdict. Columnist Makram Muhammad Ahmad wrote in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram that "the verdict is harsh, and contradicts [Mubarak's] previous promise not to impose imprisonment in cases of [media offenses]... While acknowledging that some such infringements leave no choice but go to court, many hoped that the penalty would be a fine, not imprisonment – the latter having been abolished as a punishment for [media violations] in most countries worldwide, and in several Arab countries...

"There is no doubt that respect for the leaders of the country and of society, and especially for the President and the Al-Azhar Sheikh... is part of the commitment to accepted [norms of] behavior. Everyone must express himself properly, and must use the language of dialogue – which does not limit the right to criticism and debate..."[18]

Columnist for the government daily Al-Ahram Nabil 'Omar also condemned the verdict, stating: "One of the basic rights in a sound society is the right to obtain information, so as to know where exactly society stands on the world map, to know its problems and crises, to know the social phenomena stemming from its members' actions, etc... If journalists are denied this right, the eyes, ears and perception powers of society will be impaired – and how can this be permitted to happen? What kind of future will this bring us?...

"The regime, with all its tremendous power in every sphere, must subject all its actions to rigorous scrutiny by the press – lest those in power [oppress] the citizens and [neglect] their interests. Please, do not harm your eyes, do not cut off your ears, and do not blunt your perception – either through legislation or by court rulings!"[19]

*L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), September 14, 2007.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 14, 2007.

[3] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 14, 2007.

[4] Al-Wafd (Egypt), September 29, 2007.

[5] Al Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 28, 2007.

[6] Al-Usbu' (Egypt), September 14, 2007

[7] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 16, 2007.

[8] www.ikhwanonline.com October 2, 2007.

[9] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 25, 2007.

[10] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 15, 2007.

[11] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), September 14, 2007.

[12] Al-Wafd (Egypt), September 16, 2007.

[13] Al-Wafd (Egypt), September 17, 2007.

[14] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 19, 2007.

[15] Al-Wafd (Egypt), September 20, 2007.

[16] October (Egypt), September 16, 2007.

[17] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), September 15, 2007.

[18] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 16, 2007.

[19] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 18, 2007.