President Mubarak urged to keep promise he made three years ago

Exactly three years ago, the newly-elected president of the Union of Egyptian Journalists, Galal Aref, made an important announcement: President Hosni Mubarak had just telephoned him and had formally undertaken to abolish prison sentences for journalists in connection with their work. In effect, he was promising a major overhaul of the laws concerning press offences.

Three years later, nothing has changed. Journalists still risk being imprisoned despite the semblance of a reform last year.

Article 48 of the Egyptian constitution guarantees press freedom. But in practice, a string of laws have turned respect for this principle into an exception. In addition to the legal provisions for sentencing journalists to prison terms, the state of emergency in force since Mubarak became president in 1981 means that anyone suspected of disturbing the peace can be held without charge for six months or even more in some cases.

The Union of Egyptian Journalists had been campaigning for an overhaul of press legislation before the president’s promise. The union submitted a draft law to the People’s Assembly (the lower house of parliament) in December 2000, but nothing came of it. When Mubarak gave his promise on 23 February 2004, it was immediately seen as an opportunity for reviving a debate about creating legislation that really respected the work of the press.

But despite the president’s promise, the situation of journalists did not improve. Many received prison sentences for press offences. Abdul-Nasser Al-Zohairy of the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, for example, was sentenced on appeal on 23 February 2006 to a year in prison for libel. His sentence was finally quashed on 3 March 2006 after negotiations between the union and the information ministry.

The Union of Egyptian Journalists has tirelessly submitted and resubmitted its draft law during the past three years: in February 2004, then after the 2005 legislative elections, then three times in 2006 (in February, March and April). But the People’s Assembly has never examined the draft, which would abolish prison sentences for press offences in all the relevant laws, and would impose a ceiling for fines and damages so that they could not be used as a way to bankrupt a news organisation or journalist.

On the other hand, the government submitted its own draft law to parliament on 19 June 2006. Far from meeting journalists’ expectations, the government’s bill took no account of the union’s proposals and even introduced a new offence punishable by imprisonment: insulting a person by accusing them of corruption. Corruption is a taboo subject in Egypt and the introduction of this offence would have effectively closed off any possibility of a serious journalistic investigation of the issue.

The reaction from the Egyptian press and its allies was immediate and a major campaign ensued. Many journalists and human rights activists demonstrated outside the People’s Assembly on 9 July, while 24 newspapers and magazines went on strike and stopped publishing in protest.

The offence of “accusation of corruption” was finally dropped from the draft law. In the end, only the criminal code was amended and other laws were left alone. While the possibility of prison sentences was suppressed for certain offences, in practice they were ones that had anyway ceased to be the subject of prosecutions.

Thirty-five offences, including defamation and insulting President Mubarak or a foreign head of state, continue to be punishable by imprisonment. In the new law, the ceiling for certain fines has been doubled. In cases of very large fines, journalists can be imprisoned as debtors if they are not in a position to pay the fine immediately.

Journalists are currently being prosecuted for articles they have written and are facing imprisonment. Ibrahim Issa, the editor of the weekly Al-Dustur, and Sahar Zaki, one of his journalists, have been sentenced to a year in prison and fines of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (1,400 euros) for insulting President Mubarak. They are currently awaiting a decision from the Cairo appeal court.

Egyptian journalists working for foreign news media have not been spared. Howayda Taha of the Qatar-based satellite TV station Al-Jazeera is currently been prosecuted on a charge of “endangering the national interest and the country’s reputation” in connection with a documentary she was making about torture in Egyptian prisons. The trial is already under way, but the verdict will be handed down in her absence as she returned to Qatar after being released on bail on 14 January.

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