The Press and the Pharaoh

The Press and the Pharaoh

In Egypt, the career of journalism is always increasingly more difficult

In recent days, the penal court of Bulaq (central neighborhood of Cairo) announced the sentence of Ibrahim Issa, six months imprisonment and a 20,000 pound fine (approximately $2,600.00). Issa is a journalist and editor of the Egyptian independent daily newspaper al-Dustar, founded and then quickly shut down by the authorities in 1995 and finally reopened in 2005.

Ibrahim Issa was accused by the Egyptian Secretary of Homeland Security in September 2007 for publishing internationally and nationally “false information” that caused a “disturbance to general security” and placed the “public interest in alarm”. In August 2006, Issa published an article on the grave health conditions of the Egyptian president Muhammad Hosni Mubarak and a year later similar stories continued to circulate via the internet and text messages. During the trial, the president of Egypt’s central bank, the president of the Alexandria Stock Exchange, and their economic experts, testified that the misinformations disseminated by Issa contributed to creating an atmosphere of panic and led “foreign investors to withdraw 350 million dollars from the Egyptian stock market.” He was sentenced under Article 188 of the Egyptian Penal Code, which stipulates that those who publish false news provoking negative reactions with bad repercussions for the state, shall be imprisoned. The International Federation for Human Rights (Fidh) and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (Eohr) condemned the sentence and the governmental misuse of the judicial instrument to violate the freedom of the press. In 2007 alone, 11 journalists and 5 editors of daily newspapers where incarcerated.

Howaida Taha, Egyptian Al-Jazeera TV journalist, was sentenced to 6 months in prison, and ordered to pay a fine of 20 thousand Egyptian pounds, for “possessing and releasing false pictures regarding the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country.” In January, Al-Jazeera aired a two part documentary produced by Taha. Waraa al –Shams (Beyond the Sun), depicts the physical and psychological torture carried out every day in the Egyptian jails.

The court moreover accused Howaida of reporting scenes “contrary to the real facts”. On January 13, 2007 the documentary filmmaker was stopped at the Cairo airport where officials seized 50 of her videotapes. The secretary of homeland security declared that the videotapes contained reproduced scenes of torture filmed in a studio with paid actors. Howaida, who had previously obtained the permission from the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior to circulate the scenes, was released on bail and returned to Doha to prepare the documentary. However, in February of this year, they issued a warrant for her arrest.

“This is an unjust and vindictive verdict!” said the journalist after learning, in Doha, the verdict of the tribunal. “In my country, unfortunately, the tribunals are not independent”, she concluded. After the announcement of the prison sentence, Hussein Abdel-Ghani, head of the Cairo headquarters of Al-Jazeera expressed his disappointment regarding the erosion of the freedom of expression in Egypt. “The limits imposed on the freedom of expression in my country disturb me. Writers, journalists, and bloggers are facing a period of crisis.”

In addition, he added “The cases of torture reported in Taha’s documentary are not only documented in the reports of the Organization for Human Rights, but also in those of the High Consulate for Human Rights. Those who maintain that the scenes of torture depicted in the documentary undermine the image of the state, would do better to use the same energy to put and end to these practices. It’s a fact that it’s the torture itself that corrodes the image of the country, and not the documentary that denounces it.

In the government’s sight for years now has been Dr. Abd al-Hailm al Qandil. Activist in the Kefaya opposition movement, journalist, editor of the weekly newspaper al-Arabi and ex director of the daily newspaper al-Karama, he is best known as the author of Did ar-Rais (Against the President), a collection of articles against president Mubarak, edited in the independent editing house Merit (the only in Egypt that publishes stories, poems and essays against the current regime.) In 2004, Qandil was arrested by the police, taken into the desert, beaten and left there without clothes for an entire night. In August of 2007, he resigned from the Karama editing staff. It’s rumored that in a telephone call from a government board official to as-Sibahi, head of the daily paper, it was stated, “if Qandil doesn’t step down, the paper will be closed”. A few days later, Qandil tendered his resignation stating: “To close the newspaper would be worse. Even though I am worried, because now all the articles published have to be “in line with a certain tone” and probably the newspaper will loose its ‘subversive vein’… I will take advantage of this by dedicating myself completely to the reorganization of the Kefaya movement”. Last September, Qandil was one the journalists accused of having “transmitted false information undermining the reputation of the country”. He was sentenced together with the aforementioned Ibrahim Issa, and Adel Hummada of the weekly al-Fagr and Wael al-Abrashi, of the independent newspaper Sawt ah-Umma.

A lot of other examples could be cited. There is the impression that while the censorship may on the one hand intimidate, it also generates the opposite reaction of stirring the imagination and spirit. Some young Egyptians have started to publish pieces extremely critical of the current regime. The economic crisis and the systematic violation of human rights in the country, denounced daily by different organizations, offer to these young journalists numerous starting points for their articles. Nevertheless today, among the young Egyptians, interest in politics is very limited. Most of them have “other interests”. In reality many are afraid. These “guerrillas of the press’ ( as someone defined them) are still in the minority, but represent the wishes of all that today, in Egypt, dream of a country free of the political monopoly of a government , supported by the West, for more than 27 years.

In Egypt, being a journalist is getting ever more difficult 

During the 2005 presidential elections in Egypt, 22-year-old Abd Al-Karin Sulaiman addressed Ad al-Azhar University (the biggest Egyptian religious institution NDR) in his blog stating “To Ad al-Azhar and all it’s professors, who are against all who have differing opinions, I say: you are destined to be the garbage of history, and your reign will inexorably end like all the others”

This outburst cost him 4 years in jail. Sulaiman furthermore defined the prophet Muhammad and his companions as “terrorists” and compared Mubarak to the brutal pharaohs of ancient Egypt. During the trial, he did not deny writing what was in blog, maintaining that the words represented a synthesis of his vision of Egypt today. Today in the blogosphere Sulaiman has become the symbol of the fight for freedom of expression. The easiest to prey on, and thus the first victims of the strict government, are the bloggers. In Egypt there are hundreds of different bloggers. Some write in Arabic and some in English and the majority discuss politics and criticize the Mubarak government. Someone defined it as “the French Revolution in the era of the internet”. Naturally, the immediacy, the enormous availability and the guarantee of anonymity have made the internet a personal space where the youth feel free to express, discuss, confront, vent, and eventually organize themselves.

One example is One of the most famous Egyptian blogs today, it was among the first online fighting for freedom of expression. Not surprisingly, its creator, Omar Al-Sharqawy was arrested.

Between 2004 and 2008 many bloggers and activists where imprisoned. Reports released by various human rights organizations (Eohr, Amnesty International etc…) denounce the censorship, and it’s justification “to protect the safety of the state”, condemning the arrests and the psychological , physical and sexual violence suffered by the detainees.

Another notable case is that of Abdul Moneim-Mahmud, who served two months in prison, accused of belonging to “The Society of Muslim Brothers”, the world”s largest, most influential political Islamist group. In reality, his detention was a result of the online publication of photos portraying terrible scenes of torture practiced by the Egyptian police.

“In the majority of cases, the bloggers are just students. For them, life in the Egyptian jails is, without a doubt, harsher than the conditions the more famous journalists are exposed to. If for no other reason than well known people have more money and more connections” surmised an Egyptian journalist. In Cairo an activist for the respect of human rights admitted “for the bloggers, the life in jail is harder. There is no medical assistance, they are forced to eat “pseudo food” that passes as seconds, ect…when I was inside, thanks to a few important acquaintances from which I benefited, my wife was permitted to take me to eat. This is not a small thing.”

“I don’t have fear… if we continue to have fear we will never have our freedom!” exclaimed Muhammad, a journalist of the new daily Egyptian newspaper al-Badil. I asked him to not speak like that in such a loud voice while we were in front of a road block, as he named aloud political activists known to be against the current regime. “They already know my name, my face; I was inside twice already… a terrible experience! The first time they held me for five days, the second time for five hours. They bombarded me with questions and when I refused to respond they beat me.” and he added with a bit of pride “I never gave a name, I never betrayed the resistance to this regime!”

Muhammad, like many of his colleagues, is not the only journalist, and political activist at the center of the Kefaya movement. He participates in all of the rallies, is present at all of their meetings… he is, however, very critical of the movements conflicts, but “but I don’t stop working (for the movement) just because of this. The birth and the maturation of this political group depend on me; today it is our only hope for change. I don’t believe that The Society of Muslim Brothers, much more active and well formed than the Kefaya movement, for as much as you criticize their attacks of the dictatorship of Mubarak, they can bring about a tangible betterment, and I think they represent a valid alternative to the current regime.”

“Truthfully, in Egypt, there is a discreet freedom of the press. It’s true, many daily newspapers remain shutdown, many journalists have been imprisoned, but almost everyday articles deeply critical of the current regime are published.” affirmed Muhammad El-Sayed, journalist of the weekly paper al-Ahram and editor of the new daily paper Al-Badil. He concluded” To speak, despite the difficulties, is the ability to speak. The problem is the ability to do.”

“Here in Egypt we have legitimate journalists that are not afraid. Journalists that have spent nights in jail, but have no intentions of stopping. They cannot deny the right to speak!” exclaimed a young Egyptian journalist and activist who added “ you will tell me ‘they are only words, they are not actions’ but try to imagine if there were not even these ( words) … creating a critical strength and spirit among the people. With time, I can only hope these words will translate into actions.”