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Mubarak Intervenes To Soften Press Law
The Egyptian Parliament passed a controversial press law on Monday, shortly after President Hosni Mubarak instructed his government to remove some of the provisions for prison sentences against journalists. Parliament, at Mubarak’s suggestion, ultimately removed a controversial clause that would have allowed jail terms for journalists who impugn the financial integrity of officials or state emp
Tuesday, July 11,2006 00:00
by Agencies

The Egyptian Parliament passed a controversial press law on Monday, shortly after President Hosni Mubarak instructed his government to remove some of the provisions for prison sentences against journalists. Parliament, at Mubarak’s suggestion, ultimately removed a controversial clause that would have allowed jail terms for journalists who impugn the financial integrity of officials or state employees, parliamentary sources said. But it retained increases in the maximum fines that can be imposed on reporters for offenses such as libel.

"The president responded positively to the representatives of the people and instructed the government to drop that article," Mufid Shehab, the government minister in charge of parliamentary affairs, said in a statement.

The amended law, passed by a show of hands, continues to let judges send journalists to jail in many cases, including libeling the Egyptian president or foreign heads of state.

The the opposition said the bill was another setback for Egyptian liberals and showed the insincerity of pledges by Mubarak to allow more political freedom and end jail terms for publishing infractions.

Under pressure to show evidence of political change, Mubarak promised two years ago to abolish custodial sentences for publishing offenses.

The Egyptian government has also tried to take back some of the freedoms it appeared to concede last year during the height of the US campaign for democracy in the Middle East, such as the right to protest peacefully without police intervention.

The press law passed, on a third day of deliberations, just two weeks after the government pushed through a similarly divisive judiciary law that opponents said did not guarantee that judges can be independent of the executive.

"At the end of the day, we are just in full-scale deliberalization," said Josh Stacher, an independent Cairo-based political scientist.

But he added: "I don’t think we are going to see a full-scale crackdown. It is something to be held in reserve."

The Egyptian government says the press law is a step towards a freer press because it does abolish some custodial sentences, for example for libel.

The last few years have seen the growth in Egypt of lively independent newspapers willing to challenge the rich and the powerful, right up to the presidency. The old state-owned newspapers are beginning to lose their readership.

Egypt’s independent and opposition newspapers did not publish Sunday to protest at the law, and several hundred journalists and activists marched peacefully to try to stop the law passing. State-owned papers went to press as normal.

"This is a law for killing the press," journalist Mohammad Abdel-Quddous said over a loudhailer at Sunday’s protest.

The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which holds nearly a fifth of the seats in a Parliament dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, has also objected to the law.

"It’s a retreat from the promise of the president for political reform and shows the absence of a real desire for political reform," deputy Brotherhood leader Mohammad Habib said Sunday. "The main aim is to silence the opposition."

On June 26, the editor and a journalist from the independent Ad-Dustour were sentenced to a year in jail for reporting on a complaint accusing Mubarak of misusing government money.

Three other Egyptian journalists appeared before a criminal court last month for denouncing alleged state-sponsored fraud during the 2005 parliamentary elections.

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