The government neatly defused a series of fiery libel cases last month, but journalists are adamant that the People’s Assembly act on a two-year-old presidential order to decriminalize libel
SOMETIMES, THINGS GET lost in the shuffle. It happens in our daily lives, and as recent events have suggested, it happens to legislators, too. On February 23, 2004, while Atef Ebeid was still prime minister, President Hosni Mubarak asked that the People’s Assembly pass a reform bill decriminalizing libel and turning it into a civil offense.
Fast forward to 2006, and the government of reformist democrat Ahmed Nazif has passed a laundry list of long-called-for reforms. Most have focused squarely on the economy in a bid to make it easier for all Egyptians to secure their daily bread: The customs regime has been overhauled and tariffs slashed, allowing cheaper goods to pour into the nation. Inflation has crashed from double-digits to something around four percent per year as the Egyptian pound strengthened against the US dollar. Income taxes have been cut in half for citizens and corporations alike, and voters went to the polls last fall to directly elect a president in the country’s first ever multiparty presidential race.
Last month, Nazif promised those at a conference on ‘The New Egypt’ in London that his government would scrap the hated emergency laws in favor of a permanent anti-terror statute during the People’s Assembly’s current session. And along the way, he said, the economy will remain a priority, and his ministers will earmark new funding to upgrade industry and enhance competitiveness — all while working toward a balanced budget and hiking pay for state employees and pensions.
But on the path to reform, at least one promise fell by the wayside as legislators have so far failed to pass a new press law that would see journalists and the media outlets that employ them pay civil fines rather than spend time at hard labor for acts of libel and slander.
Abdel-Nasser El-Zoheiri learned that the hard way on February 23, 2006. A journalist with the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, which began as a ragged upstart but has since become a respected staple of the nation’s media diet, El-Zoheiri was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a LE 10,000 fine in a suit filed against him and two of his colleagues by former Minister of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities Ibrahim Suleiman.
Barely two weeks later, El Fagr journalist Amira Malash was sentenced to a year of hard labor in addition to an LE 10,000 fine, becoming the first female journalist to receive a prison sentence for libel after she allegedly defamed a sitting judge. Days later, leftist activist Shahenda Miqlid was handed a six-month term after she claimed in an interview with Nisf El-Donia magazine that a family had orchestrated the murder of her husband in the village of Kamshish in the 1960s. She wasn’t even a journalist, merely a source for a story.
The cluster of high-profile cases near the two-year anniversary of Mubarak’s request to Parliament led members of the press to openly wonder in their newspapers and magazines whether they were the targets of an unspoken campaign. (Under the Syndicate’s current rules, broadcast journalists and members of the foreign press, including Egyptian reporters and editors at Egypt Today, are not eligible for syndicate membership.)
For the first time in over 40 years, the Press Syndicate attracted a legal quorum for a full general assembly meeting held for a purpose other than elections. More than 1,500 reporters, editors and photographers convened on March 17, 2006. Tempers flared as they demanded that the Nazif government introduce the long-promised reforms to the Press Act.
A few meters away, the Judges’ Club’s general assembly was also taking place, prompting many editors to run headlines declaring March 17 the “Day of Justice and Freedom.”
In his speech to members, Syndicate Chairman Galal Aref pointed out that journalists insist on seeing the president’s promise honored, “without it being twisted or emptied of meaning. Our efforts may have succeeded in averting the crisis resulting from the obstruction of the president’s promise, but at the moment there are hundreds of cases before the courts. All these cases must be postponed until the issuance of the new law.”
(In noting that the crisis had been averted, Aref was speaking of a high profile intervention by senior members of the governing National Democratic Party. More on that in a moment.)
“Journalists are only asking for the rights of the whole nation. The [existing] laws do not just harm journalists, but everyone who has a voice and an opinion,” Aref announced, adding that legislation guaranteeing freedom of the press must be an integral part of the Nazif government’s ongoing democratization campaign.
The Press Syndicate’s elected council voted to keep the general assembly in a state of “ongoing convention” so it can take emergency action should it be needed.
Yehia Qallash, the syndicate’s secretary-general, says, “Changing the existing law is of the utmost importance, since it contains obscure terms such as shame, hatred, instigation and bias, which exist without definition, leaving it up to the discretion of the judge.” Journalists, he says, deserve to work from clearly established ground rules that are universally understood.
In many countries, libel (in print) and slander (broadcast) are civil offenses for which writers and those who employ them pay fines. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, an industry standard on matters of libel, defines libel as “injury to reputation. Words, pictures or cartoons that expose a person to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule, or induce an ill opinion of a person are libelous.” Generally speaking —the law differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — truth is a defense to libel. As AP notes, “A public official, a public figure and a private individual involved in a matter of public concern all will have to prove the statement is false in order to prevail on their libel claim.”
But under Egyptian law, truth is not a defense to libel, as the court may find a person guilty of the offense for writing even the truth about a public official if that report exposed the official to shame or if the story was (in the sole opinion of the presiding judge) intended in a malicious manner.
Abdallah El-Sinnawi, the editor-in-chief of the weekly Nasserite Al-Arabi, claims any journalist doing his or her job under those circumstances is performing “an act of martyrdom” — hardly a noble goal for a member of the fourth estate.
“We simply assume that journalism is a profession like any other,” El-Sinnawi says. “Journalists are not champions or martyrs, and neither are they suicidal. I hope that some day, journalists will be seen as mere professionals who love their jobs and are just doing their duties. I wish that a journalist could offer criticism, then go home and have a full night’s sleep knowing that he or she is protected by the law.”
El Fagr’s Amira Malash, 28, has become the public face of the campaign.
“I sympathize with Amira. She is a good young journalist. But I do not want her to turn into a champion [for the cause],” El-Sinnawi says. “She shouldn’t have to. I just want her to become a good journalist who knows how to check her sources and bring her newspaper a good scoop.”
Her story began last year, when the young crime reporter was covering a bribery case. “The two individuals accused were a businessman and a court secretary. The businessman confessed to having bribed a judge and should have been released, according to law. The secretary confessed to facilitating the bribery, something he allegedly did for the judge more than once. All I did was attend the hearing and transcribe what the two said. The case was closed, and the accused are still in custody. The judge in question filed a defamation case against me, and the state attorney called me in for questioning,” she says.
Charged with libel, her hearing was set for March 7, 2005, she says, adding that “knowing that such cases take months in the overworked courts, my lawyer and I expected a postponement. I went [to court] and my colleagues told me to wait outside because it was too crowded. I cover crime, so I know how long these things take, but I waited. There were 200 cases, but my case was called early.”
In a matter of eight minutes, Malash claims, she was sentenced to a year of hard labor and a fine of LE 10,000, sentence to be implemented immediately. Her lawyer’s request for a stay pending an appeal was rejected.
“I have been hiding since then,” she admits. “Only my parents know where I am right now. I cannot step out of the apartment; I am waiting for the order staying the verdict in my case. My lawyer keeps telling me it should be out anytime now.”
“What happened to Malash should scare journalists. Many [in the Old Guard] are being aggressive toward the independent press for its role in covering demands for political change,” says Wael El-Ibrashi, the executive editor-in-chief of Sout El-Omma newspaper and the host of the Dream TV investigative show Al-Haqiqa.
The order of stay for which Malash is waiting came after the case against Al-Masry reporter El-Zoheiri made national headlines last month and prompted senior NDP leaders to intervene on the journalists’ behalf.
The wheels of justice were set in motion against El-Zoheiri just as quickly as they were against Malash. The reporter was sentenced to prison after he and two colleagues (Alaa El-Ghatrifi and Youssef El-Oumi) published an article about the search of Suleiman’s office as part of a police investigation of the former minister’s son-in-law in August 2004.
“All three of us received the news while working our beats and from three different sources. I wrote the piece objectively, and it was picked up by Arab satellite stations,” El-Zoheiri says, adding that he tried to get a statement from Cabinet and from Suleiman before going to press. “They didn’t respond to the allegations in the piece [the first day]. On the second day, we published a story on his denial. The first story was a three-column piece; the minister’s denial was a seven-column story and was the lead front-page story. Still, the minister was offended and filed a case against us.”
Although the defense proved that the journalists had no prior connections with the minister and had no malicious intent, the judge ruled against El-Zoheiri. For reasons still unclear, his co-defendants were cleared of the accusations.
“It was a contradictory sentence; it did not make sense. Why were they acquitted? I think it was a matter of trying to please both parties —the minister by imprisoning me and the media by clearing my colleagues,” El-Zoheiri claims.
Like Malash, El-Zoheiri went into hiding after the verdict was handed down, and headlines about his case demanded action — even in the state-owned media.
Enter Shura Council Speaker and NDP heavyweight Safwat El-Sherif, who gathered Aref and a number of other editors-in-chief whose staff had been hit by libel suits. Together, they engaged in round-table negotiations with Suleiman.
After Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif himself interceded, the retired minister agreed to drop 30 libel cases he had filed against journalists.
Although now cleared, El-Zoheiri says, “I cannot write, not now, although I did write a little piece about Amira Malash. She is so young, and I do not know if society will understand her prison sentence. When my neighbors meet me, they ask me why I had been sentenced to prison. They do not understand. They think it is something else, something criminal.”
At press time, Malash was still waiting for her lawyer to receive official notification that the verdict in her case has been quashed.
Four years ago, the Press Syndicate presented a draft law to the People’s Assembly calling for the elimination of 18 clauses in the existing law governing the press, almost all of them dealing with libel and slander. Analysts do not expect that document to come up for debate, and sources close to the Nazif government say Cabinet will soon table a draft law of its own for debate in the People’s Assembly.
Many seasoned journalists aren’t holding their breath. Al-Ahram columnist Fahmi Howeidi says that while the March 17 Press Syndicate assembly conveyed a strong message to the authorities, there has so far been no official promise that legislation will be soon introduced.
At that assembly, Kamel El-Zoheiry, one of the syndicate’s most popular ex-chairmen, urged members to demand the new press law be issued within three months.
With members’ threat of sit-ins and protests hanging in the air, El-Sinnawi is optimistic journalists will keep the issue alive in the headlines. The first test of their resolve will come April 17, when the syndicate is scheduled to hold its next general assembly meeting. آ et