A dark year for press freedom in Egypt

A dark year for press freedom in Egypt

“Egypt”s government has waged a steady, year-long offensive against the independent press. Outspoken journalists and bloggers have been detained, prosecuted, and harassed for tackling controversial stories. The country”s boisterous independent press has been a source of growing concern among government officials. Its vitality and rising popularity comes at the expense of the state-run papers, which are read less and less each day,” Joel Campagna, Senior Program Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the Washington-based press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told APN.

Despite what Campagna refers to as the “increased assertiveness of the Egyptian press,” he emphasizes that CPJ has noticed “a steady erosion of press freedoms over the last five years — a period which has seen a spike in violent assaults and criminal prosecutions against journalists.”

As a result, the Egyptian authorities have received stark criticism from international rights groups in the past year, and the country has slid down to bottom rankings in the majority of indexes measuring freedom of expression around the world.

In May 2007, CPJ cited Egypt as one of the “world”s worst backsliders on press freedom,” emphasizing an increase in the number of attacks on the press since 2003. Later in the year, Egypt came in at number 146 out of 169 countries evaluated in the World Press Freedom Index; an annual rating published by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“Most Egyptian journalists think that they are far away from prison terms, which is something they perhaps should rethink considering the jailing of several journalists in the past year,” Ehab El-Zelaky, Editorial Manager at the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, told APN.

Magdi Abdel Hadi, Arab Affairs Analyst at the BBC, maintains that while the overall picture of Egypt”s press environment remains “contradictory, the red line has been boosted a bit in terms of press freedom.”

“Today, you can read about sensitive topics in the independent press which you couldn”t do a few years ago. For example, ten years ago you wouldn”t be reading about alleged torture and police abuse in the Egyptian press at all. There are also certain privately owned TV channels in Egypt that enjoy greater freedom than in other Arab countries, where the situation is worse,” said Abdel Hadi.

Year begins with two prison sentences

In January 2007, Al-Jazeera journalist Howaida Taha Mitwalli was stopped at Cairo airport by security as she tried to board a flight to Qatar, where the Al-Jazeera headquarters are located. Taha had been working on a documentary film about torture in Egypt and was allegedly stripped of her videotapes and computer.  She was sentenced to six months in prison on May 2 for “possessing and giving false pictures about the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country.”

Egypt”s decision to sentence 23-year old blogger Kareem Amer to prison in February sparked a fury among the civil society and attracted much unwanted attention from international media. A critic of both the leading Islamic institution al-Azhar and the Egyptian government, Amer was sentenced to a four-year prison sentence for insulting Islam and President Mubarak on his blog. The case marks the first time Egypt refers a blogger to a prison term.

Amer”s lawyer Gamal Eid, who is also the director of the Cairo-based non-governmental organization, The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo), stressed that “Kareem crossed the line by criticizing Islam, the President, and the Al-Azhar institution.”

Abdel Hadi suggested that the regime might have sought to “protect its legitimacy” by sentencing Amer, thus “demonstrating that they are tough on those criticizing religion.”

When combined with public activism, blogging is a particularly dangerous activity, according to Eid. In April, security officials at Cairo airport arrested Brotherhood-affiliated journalist and blogger Abdel Moneim Mahmoud as he attempted to travel to Sudan to do reporting on human rights in the Arab world.

A well-known advocate against torture practices in the country, Mahmoud was allegedly charged with belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and with defaming the government with his reporting. He was held at various facilities, including Tora prison, for approximately one month before he was released. Rights groups maintain that Mahmoud”s arrest was a direct result of his blog activism.

Bloggers under surveillance

Despite these obstacles, Egypt”s active blogosphere continues to push the red line on free speech and expose alleged human rights abuses in their country. They often break stories on controversial topics such as alleged police abuse, and their activism attracts the attention of both national and independent media.

Wael Abbas, a leading blogger and anti-torture activist, was among the first to upload the infamous video clips depicting two policemen torturing and sodomizing mini-van driver Emad-al Kabir with a stick at a Cairo police station in 2006. The case sparked an outcry among human rights groups and the two officers were sentenced to prison terms in a landmark case in November 2007.

“The blogs have proven successful here in Egypt. Newspapers can always be shut down but it”s hard for the regime to control the activities of the bloggers,” Abbas told APN.

The web activists have in recent time caught the attention of the authorities and numerous bloggers say they are under surveillance and subject to harassment and intimidation. A few have even been detained and sentenced to prison for their online activities.

“They know what I”m doing on the Internet. I”ve received phone calls in which I was ordered to stop cooperating with human rights organizations,” Abbas said.

Massive clampdown in September

The month of September witnessed a series of prison sentences imposed on members of the independent media, dealing “new blows to freedom of expression,” as rights groups put it. Adil Hamouda, Editor of the weekly Al-Fagr; Wael al-Ibrashi, of the weekly Sawt al-Umma; Abd al-Halim Qandil, former editor of the weekly Al-Karama; and Ibrahim Issa, Editor of the daily Al-Dustour, were all sentenced to a one-year prison term and a fine of LE 20,000 (2,500 euro) for reportedly “publishing false information likely to disturb public order”.

According to a report published by CPJ, the case was initiated by a lawyer affiliated with the National Democratic Party, who accused the editors of defaming governmental figures and of spreading false information. Issa was also charged in a separate case by the state security prosecutor-general for putting out reports “likely to disturb public security and damage the public interest,” following a series of articles in Al-Dustour that raised questions about the health of President Mubarak. New hearings in the case are reportedly scheduled for early January.

“The regime is attempting to roll back the important role the independent press has gained in the past three years,” said Hisham Kassem, former publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm and a well-known press freedom activist.

Around the same time, Al-Wafd Editor-in-Chief Anwar al-Hawari, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mahmoud Ghalab, and the newspaper”s Political Editor Amir Salem were convicted for libel on charges brought by eleven lawyers reportedly affiliated with the National Democratic Party. They received two-year prison sentences each but are free on appeal.

According to Magdi Abdel Haid, “There is of course a fear that the reporting of the independent press will shape and influence public opinion,” given the several convictions of members of the independent press.

“The law in Egypt is applied rather selectively in a sense. The authorities remain tough on certain issues and are more lenient on others.” But in terms of curbing dissent of the regime, “They can if they want apply undefined and broad laws.”

In response to September”s “mass sentencing” of editors and journalists, numerous opposition and independent newspapers took part in a day-long publishing strike on October 8 as a gesture of solidarity with the convicted editors and journalists. Several prominent bloggers followed the example and refrained from their keyboards on that day.

“The state is attacking independent media because of the ground it is gaining. There are many independents available in Egypt these days and people are getting rid of the governmental newspapers and read the independent publications instead. There is a very good market share for the independent press at the moment,” argued Ehab El-Zelaky of Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Most recently, six insult and defamation lawsuits were also brought against Wael El Ibrashi, editor-in-chief of the independent Sawt El-Omma. The lawsuits were reportedly filed by businessmen in response to articles published in Sawt El-Omma, “Following legal transgressions reportedly committed by the companies run by the businessmen.” Hearings in the case are scheduled for January 28 and February 11, 2008.

Split views on 2008

Whether 2008 will mark another year of restrictions on freedom of expression and the press in Egypt remains unknown and views on the matter are split.

“There are certain signs, such as the growth of the independent press, that something is happening. On other hand, there are events that completely contradict that statement, like the sentencing of the four editors-in-chief,” stated Abdel Hadi.

Despite last year”s tussles with the authorities, El-Zelaky believes that Egypt”s independent press will continue to flourish. “The state is trying to set an example and scare journalists by handing out sentences like the ones we”ve witnessed in 2007,” he said.

Hisham Kassem, the former publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm, however, argues that the events of 2007 might only be the start of something larger.

“This is the beginning of a crackdown. God knows what will happen next. It really depends on whether the independent press will stand up [to the regime.] Importantly, there are those people who won”t simply sit there and do nothing and who will fight to express themselves.”

As a blogger, Abbas remains skeptical.

“Freedom of expression is definitely going down”, he said. “We gained more ground for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Egypt in 2005 and 2006, but the future looks very uncertain considering the latest crackdown on journalists and bloggers.”

One positive development could be seen at the very end of year 2007. In April, Alexandria head judge Abdel Fattah Mourad, had filed a lawsuit against fifty-one websites belonging to prominent Egyptian human rights organizations and bloggers, demanding their shutdown on the basis that they “tarnish the reputation of the Egyptian government.”

The case, also referred to as the “51 websites trial,” took an interesting turn shortly after Eid”s HRInfo in turn accused judge Mourad of violating the organization”s intellectual property rights by including fifty pages of an HRinfo report on Internet blogging in his own book without citing sources or including references.

In a court ruling on December 29, the request was rejected, with the court expressing its support for freedom of expression and stressing the importance of not compromising the freedom of these websites as long as they do not undermine fundamental beliefs or public order.