Begging Your Pardon

Begging Your Pardon

Ibrahim Eissa remains a free man, if not exactly innocent in the eyes of the law. A presidential pardon issued October 6 meant the controversial editor in chief of independent daily Al-Dostour would not have to serve a two-month prison sentence for publishing false information that harmed national interests.

Eissa’s latest legal battle started with an August 2007 editorial titled “Gods Don’t Get Sick,” in which the editor printed widely circulating rumors that President Hosni Mubarak was in ill health. Within days, he was summoned before the State Security Prosecutor for questioning; by October 1, he was in Boulaq Misdemeanors Court to stand trial on the criminal charges. He was convicted in March 2008 and sentenced to six months, but the Abbasiyya Court of Appeals reduced the sentence to two months.

The presidential pardon does not overturn the conviction, it only forgives Eissa for the crime and absolves him of serving the punishment.

Eissa says that while he welcomes the pardon, he does not foresee an era of new press freedoms on the horizon. Control of the press is heavy-handed, he says, and people should be worried. He vows to continue using his writing to speak out against the government and the president.

Dangerous Assumptions

Over the past two decades, government intervention with the media has moved in waves. The 1990s saw a resistance to licensing independent satellite channels, but after 2000, satellite channels boomed. In February 2008, Egypt was among the Arab governments to adopt a media charter that allows for punishment of Arab satellite channels for broadcasts deemed offensive.

On the print media side, Press Law No. 93 of 1995 ushered in a crackdown that saw 99 journalists prosecuted in the first year alone; Eissa’s paper Al-Dostour was among several banned in 1997. In the run-up to the 2005 presidential elections, Mubarak promised a new unified press law that would eliminate prison penalties in the existing laws. The People’s Assembly completely ignored the president’s promise, passing a law in 2006 with new criminal offenses carrying jail time and hefty fines. Pressure is also being applied in civil courts, with editors and writers subject to hisbah (third-party) lawsuits for defamation and libel.

Eissa, a veteran journalist with decades of experience of outspoken reporting and many run-ins with the law as a result, acknowledges that the country has made some progress in media freedom in recent years, but still believes that the government clampdown on press freedoms has gone too far.

“What is happening [to freedom of expression] goes beyond belief. It indicates that we’re living in a society that is based on prohibiting free opinion,” Eissa says. “The country and the government considers hypocrisy the priority and not [logic] or use of proof and good arguments.”

In “Gods Don’t Get Sick,” Eissa speculated about Mubarak’s health, alleging that the president suffers from poor blood circulation. When asked who told him about the alleged health problems and why he did not mention his source in the article, Eissa says it is right to assume that somebody of the president’s age would suffer from circulation problems.

“It is like saying that a woman beyond the age of 50 [goes through] menopause; can anybody deny that? Can anyone deny that your sight gets weaker when you get old?” argues Eissa. He claims the president’s fainting episode in the People’s Assembly in 2003 is proof of his assumption, and in his article, he challenged the reader to double-check the assertion with a doctor if he does not believe it.

“I said that the illness is the illness of his age not the illness of his person,” Eissa claims.

The actual article reads: “It is not a serious illness. It is just old age. But the Egyptian people are entitled to know if the president is down with something as minor as the flu.”

The editor feels he has done nothing morally or professionally wrong, noting the scrutiny given to US presidential candidate John McCain’s health. “There was a poll on CNN asking people whether McCain’s health will allow him to complete his first term as president. McCain gave a 110-page report on his health to journalists and to CNN’s doctor, this is the people’s right. We have the same right to know about our president’s health, which affects the future of our country.”

Eissa alleges that his trial judged only his personal opinions and not the offense with which he was charged. He says he was told during the investigation that he published false news. “If it was false news, how come no one corrected me?” he asks. “If it is false news, tell me the correct [story] and I’ll publish it, end of story.”

People need to remember, Eissa says, that editorials are opinion pieces.

Speculation about the president’s health was not the only controversial aspect about Eissa’s article. Throughout the piece, Eissa alleged that the First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, is pushing the president to step aside and leave rule to his son Gamal. (Gamal has publicly denied any aspirations to the presidency.) The article presented no solid proof or sources supporting that allegation. Eissa responds, “I’m a journalist and I have my sources. I hear the information from several different sources, check them and this is it.”

A Life in Opposition

Eissa is no stranger to court cases. A 2005 lawsuit against him resulted in a one-year prison sentence, later reduced to a LE 22,000 fine upon appeal. In 2006, he received another one-year prison sentence for libeling the president; after appeals, he instead paid another LE 22,000 bail. Currently Eissa has another lawsuit pending against him for allegedly insulting the president; the appeal will be in December 2008.

A journalist for 24 years, Eissa started out in 1989 with the opposition weekly magazine Rose Al-Youssef. He first established Al-Dostour as a weekly newspaper in 1995. Two years later, the paper lost its license after it ran a story alleging prominent Coptic businessmen were the targets of an assassination plot. Observers speculate the ban was due more Al-Dostour’s outspoken criticism of the government. In 2005, the government ban was lifted on the paper, and Al-Dostour returned to newsstands operating under a Cypriot license (making it subject to Egypt’s Censorship Bureau). It became a daily paper in March 2007.

Eissa says that throughout his career, his outspoken approach has made him a target of not just the government. During the early 1990s, when he worked at Rose Al-Youssef, religious extremists attempted to assassinate both the former minister of interior and the former prime minister — Eissa strongly and bluntly criticized the terrorists and their extreme religious beliefs and practices. He alleges that in 1992 a group called Organization of Returnees from Afghanistan II were plotting to assassinate him, and that his house was being watched and his phone tapped.

The Ministry of Interior provided him with private bodyguards from 1992, until 1999. “Terrorism threatens you as a writer and as a human being,” Eissa says.

Al-Dostour’s editor alleges that political oppression in this country plays an important role in the existence of religious oppression and extremism. “It’s not only the [government] that violates people’s rights; sometimes the entire society violates rights,” Eissa says. “The country should play an important role in causing an intellectual and political uprising, but this doesn’t happen.”

The Media Minefield

Opinion editorials in Al-Dostour are usually highly critical, not necessarily of the government in particular, but of the social, economic and political conditions in Egypt. Eissa says he never censors his writers’ opinion pieces: “I asked [the columnists] to write in my paper in the first place, so they’re free to write what they want. There are no restrictions.”

The editor says that he only reads the articles when they get published in the paper like any other reader. He notes that Al-Dostour has a ‘no censorship, no restrictions’ policy’ with only one exception: The paper will not discuss normalization of relations with Israel or recognition of the Israeli state.

Eissa says that the most important rule is the truthfulness of published information. The editor says that he runs at least 70 articles in each paper and receives corrections on two or three at most. “This is a great percentage according to my standards, and according to the standards of publications in Egypt, this is really great.” Al-Dostour publishes corrections and apologies for errors on a regular basis.

Working in journalism is challenging and requires bravery and hard work, Eissa believes. “Writing in the press is like walking into a minefield. You never know when and where a landmine will explode in your face. Young journalists, if you’re afraid of landmines, go home.”

Eissa does acknowledge that freedom of the press is better now than it was in 2005 and even better than it was in 2002. This is something that he considers progress, and he urges young journalists to keep fighting for more freedom. “The best thing is that many landmines have been exploded [already],” he says with a laugh, “so there aren’t many to be exploded in the younger generation’s faces.”

Censorship and Fear

“The release of Ibrahim Eissa by presidential decree is certainly a step forward for the case of press freedom inEgypt. Hopefully this is an indication that the imprisonment of journalists will end inthe future,” says Naila Hamdy, chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

Hamdy says she does not particularly approve or disapprove of Al-Dostour or the other opposition newspapers, but “if independent newspapers are really serious about their mission, they need to understand that freedom of press requires credibility and accountability and that they must raise their standards of journalism in order to push for wider press freedoms.”

Mohamed Abdel Kodos, executive head of the Press Syndicate’s Freedoms Committee has a different view. “The president is not going to interfere personally whenever a journalist gets jailed. There need to be laws that protect journalists in the first place.” Abdel Kodos believes “there is no freedom of press whatsoever in Egypt.”

In the government’s eyes, there are two types of print media in the country: foreign press and local press. The Shura Council is the only authority that can license a publication as local press; without that approval, a publication must print offshore or in a free zone. An offshore or free-zone publication is considered foreign press, even if the organization is based in Egypt and staffed by Egyptians.

The foreign press must submit its issues to the Censorship Bureau, which can order offensive material removed from the issue. The local press does not go through the Censorship Bureau, but editors may feel pressure to self-censor articles on sensitive topics.

Freedom of press, according to Abdel Kodos, is not possible while the country is still living under the Emergency Law. The law gives almost unlimited powers to the police, which he alleges allows them to bully journalists, something Abdel Kodos claims to have witnessed throughout his 30-year career in journalism.

Hassan Ragab worked for almost 40 years with the state-run Akhbar Al-Youm. He says that the government ownership of the paper led him to leave journalism for a teaching career in AUC’s journalism department. “I didn’t feel at ease; I don’t enjoy writing when there is always censorship and fear,” he says. “Working in government newspapers is disastrous; there is no respect for journalistic rules or ethics. They write what is [beneficial] to the government, not the public.”

As journalism professor, Ragab adopts a realistic view for the nation’s up-and-coming ‘fourth estate.’ “I’d love to be able to tell them that these are the rules and this how things should go, but since this isn’t how things happen in reality, I advise them to be careful.”

According to the Press Syndicate, there are 33 articles in the law that facilitate the imprisonment of journalists and have a chilling effect on the freedom of opinion and press. In addition to Eissa, Adel Hammouda, editor-in-chief of Al-Fajr newspaper; Wael El-Ibrashi, editor-in-chief of Sawt El-Ummah newspaper and Abel-Halim Kandil, editor-in-chief of Al-Karama newspaper all have cases against in the criminal courts related to articles published in their publications.

True freedom of press, Eissa says, will not happen until there is a free political environment.

To those who say that papers like Al-Dostour take their opposition too far, he retorts, “I hate unanimity and I don’t expect people to unite on loving the paper. I think a paper’s success is measured by the controversy raised around it, and Al-Dostour has a great share of controversy.”

The best thing to come out of his presidential pardon, according to the editor, is the increased sales of the newspaper, but he also says that he was touched by the support he received from human rights organizations, journalists’ rights organization, protest groups and Egyptian citizens. “I felt like I was protected by people’s love, which is good, but I need to be protected by the rights I’m entitled to as a as a journalist.”  et