Press freedom in Egypt

The al-Jazeera reported today (Feb 27) that an Egyptian newspaper editor, who was convicted in June 2006 of defaming the country’s president, has his one-year jail term overturned and substituted by a fine of $3,950. Eissa, the editor, accused the president of selling state enterprises too cheaply and wasting foreign aid in editorial columns in his al-Dustour weekly.

Meanwhile, an Egyptian blogger, Soliman, has been sentenced for four years’ jail last Thursday for insulting both Islam and the president on his internet writings. He is the first Egyptian blogger to stand trial for expressing views on internet.

Al-Dustour or The Constitution is an independent weekly in Egypt first issued in 1995. It is committed against corruption, terrorism and Israel. It was banned between 1998 and 2005 for its outright criticism against government ministers and their slow progress towards democracy.

Egypt often portrays itself as the leader of the Arab world in all aspects of modern life, including the media. Despite this, press freedom is still controlled by the government. In Egypt, government owns a controlling stock in three major daily Egyptian newspapers and editors are all government-appointed. Domestic independent newspapers, where al-Dustour is one of them, are censored by licensing laws. Due to the extreme difficulty in obtaining state licensure, there are very few independent newspapers.

Censorship was formally banned in the 1974 national constitution. However, the government often cites the emergency law, which has been in force since 1981, to control the media. Declaring a state of emergency gives the state sweeping powers of arrest and curbing basic freedoms. It was renewed for another three years in 2003 when demonstrations against Iraq war began to grow. The government has ordered the media to avoid printing anything likely to stir up an already impassioned population or undermine relations with the United States.

The present Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a former Air Force Commander, came to power in 1981 and rules the country with quasi-military rule. He has kept the country under emergency law for his entire office of a quarter of a century. Egypt’s constitution does stipulate democratic institutions and an electoral process, but elections have been heavily weighted in favour of Mubarak and the National Democratic Party (NDP) and he has never had to compete in a fair electoral battle. He was elected unopposed in previous elections. Only until last year did Mubarak allow rival candidates.Mubarak has made several promises in 1996 and 2004 to amend the press law to abolish prison sentences for media offenses but they were never realized.

The emergency law stems from an enduring legacy from Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat. At the end of the October war with Israel in 1967, Sadat concluded a peace deal with Israel including recognition of the Jewish state in return for the Sinai Desert. This peace deal met with strong domestic opposition, and most of all, the return of militant Islam. Based on this, the current Mubarak government often argues the emergency law is necessary to combat Islamist terrorism.

Reporters Sans Frontieres includes Egypt as one of the 13 enemies of the internet for its online censorship. Soliman’s arrest provoked an outcry from the Egyptian blogging community. A “Free Kareem” campaign – using his blogging name Kareem Amer – was launched. This campaign supports the freedom of expression as a basic and inalienable human right.


Related Topics:

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Committee to Protect Journalists
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The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information – Cairo, Egypt
State Security threatens blogger
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The Blogger Scene in Egypt
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2006, year of crackdowns on blogging
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Alexandrian blogger arrested…
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New Vehicle for Dissent Is a Fast Track to Prison
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