The Big Question in Egypt: How’s Your Health?

The Big Question in Egypt: How’s Your Health?

President Mubarak”s health is said to be fine these days, but we can”t say the same for press freedom in Egypt. On Thursday, an Egyptian court sentenced four independent newspaper editors to one year in prison and handed them fines of about $3,500 dollars for criticizing the government. They were convicted of “publishing false information likely to disturb public order” in relation to articles attacking Mubarak as well as leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party, including Mubarak”s son, Gamal, a potential presidential successor.

The editors, free on bail pending appeals, are: Ibrahim Eissa of Ad-Dustour, Wael al-Abrashy of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, Adel Hammouda of the weekly al-Fajr, and Abdel Halim Kandil of the weekly al-Karama.

The sentencing came as Eissa was getting into even more trouble with authorities. Two days earlier, a state security prosecutor charged the editor for threatening Egyptian security and interests by publishing articles alleging that the 79-year-old Mubarak”s health had become shaky. Eissa”s trial in that case is due to begin on Oct. 1.

The cases are an awful setback for free expression in the Arab world and particularly of course in Egypt. Many Egyptians fear that the cases are a sign that the government is intent on reversing the loosening of press freedom that occurred in the years leading up to Egypt”s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005. The Union of Egyptian Journalists called the sentencing of the four editors a “declaration of war on press freedom.”

The moves also brought swift and widespread condemnation from international press freedom groups. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that “Egypt once again thumbs its nose at the most basic principles of a free press.” It quoted Nasser Amine, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession in Cairo, saying, “This is undoubtedly a new attempt on the part of the government to terrorize journalists and to stifle their voices in order to control any future information about President Mubarak’s health and ability to remain in power.”

“We are witnessing a crackdown on independent publications which had enjoyed a relative respite in recent years,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. “Once again, it is the same journalists, ones known for being critical of the government, that are being targeted.”

“Press freedom does not exist in a country where the state can put you in prison simply for criticizing the president,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “This ruling and the new charges against Eissa are incompatible with Egypt’s Constitution and its commitments under international human rights law, not to mention Egypt’s current membership on the UN Human Rights Council.”

Human Rights Watch, in a comment echoed by the London-based Amnesty International, called on the government to repeal laws “that allow authorities to imprison writers and editors solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

First Lady Suzanne Mubarak told an Arab satellite channel that her husband was as “fit as a fiddle,” an assessment confirmed to TIME by several of the President”s recent visitors. Yet, reflecting official views, Mrs. Mubarak argued for punishing journalists who publish rumors.

Bottom line: as Mubarak inevitably ages and speculation naturally increases about his eventual successor, the government will brook no press freedom that threatens efforts to engineer an orderly transition. Stability, after all, is Mubarak”s legacy. Battles between the regime and the press are thus likely to be a regular feature of the news from Egypt in the coming few years. Judging from the troubles of editors like Ibrahim Eissa, that”s bad news for the health of Egyptian journalists.