25 February - 3 March 1999
Issue No. 418
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Back to jail?By Shaden Shehab
In just three weeks, three journalists working for the opposition daily Al-Wafd have been accused of publishing false information harmful to the public interest, a fourth working for the national Akhbar El-Yom has been charged with libel and a fifth from the independent Al-Geel paper was detained briefly by police.
Abbas El-Tarabili, co-chief editor of Al-Wafd, and Gamal Shawki, a reporter for the same newspaper, were questioned on Saturday by a state security prosecutor in connection with charges of "publishing false and sensational information with the intention of harming public interests." This followed a complaint from Minister of Economy Youssef Boutros Ghali against Al-Wafd for publishing an article claiming that banks had been secretly instructed not to accept time deposits for periods longer than one year. In his complaint, Ghali claimed that the article had harmed the national economy. El-Tarabili and Shawki denied the accusations and were released without bail, but the investigation is continuing.
El-Tarabili told interrogators that Al-Wafd sought to serve public interests and that the issue of bank deposits was the subject of discussion at several economic seminars and in the pages of specialist publications.
Shawki said the article, which he authored, was based on personal experience. He explained that he had wanted to make a six-year bank deposit, but the bank official refused, saying the bank had received secret instructions not to accept deposits for periods longer than one year.
A week earlier, El-Tarabili was summoned by a state security prosecutor in connection with similar, but separate, charges. He and Mohamed Abdel-Alim, a reporter for the same newspaper, were accused of "publishing false information harmful to public interests, inciting public opinion and inciting workers to abandon work." Abdel-Alim had written a story claiming that there was a labour strike at the printing press of the Central Bank. El-Tarabili and Abdel-Alim denied the accusations and were released on bail of LE500 each.
Prosecutors held El-Tarabili responsible for the articles, despite a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court that chief editors should be held responsible only for articles they themselves author. This ruling cancelled a provision in the press law that chief editors should be held accountable for every word published in their newspaper.
The Penal Code rather than the press law was invoked against El-Tarabili, Shawki and Abdel-Alim for the first time since Law 93 of 1995 was replaced by the press law of 1996. Law 93 had stiffened penalties for publication offences and stipulated that journalists be taken into custody while they are being investigated.
Galal Aref, deputy chief editor of Akhbar El-Yom and a contributor to El-Arabi, the mouthpiece of the Nasserist Party, was charged by a civil prosecutor with libelling Tharwat Abaza, a writer and a member of the Shura Council. But Aref refused to be questioned because the prosecutor's summons was not channelled via the Press Syndicate, as stipulated by the law.
Aref's article, which was published in El-Arabi, had accused Abaza of using his parliamentary immunity to criticise his opponents and dodge any possible accusation of libel.
This was not the first time that Abaza had targeted journalists in complaints to prosecutors or taken journalists to court.
Last March, Gamal Fahmi was sentenced to six months imprisonment for publishing an article, also in El-Arabi, that the court found to be slanderous to Abaza. Fahmi spent five months in jail before a higher court quashed the sentence.
Two months later, Amr Nassef, a member of the Nasserist Party and a journalist with the independent Al-Osbou weekly, was sentenced to three months imprisonment, also for slandering Abaza. He served the complete term.
At the beginning of this month, Yasser Ayyoub, then chief editor of the Cypriot-licensed independent weekly Al-Geel, was taken by police from his home. "I did not know the reason until I reached the Nasr City police station," Ayyoub told Al-Ahram Weekly. He was informed that he was wanted in order to serve a one-year prison sentence handed down in 1996 by an Alexandria court that found him guilty of slandering a senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture.
After spending the night at the Nasr City police station, he was taken to Alexandria. At the Alexandria court, Ayyoub began legal action to contest the judgment and demanded a copy of the ruling to find out whether the sentence was suspended or not. He was released shortly afterwards.
Makram Mohamed Ahmed, chairman of the Press Syndicate, told the Weekly that the "syndicate is following the investigations and will take the necessary steps when required." He urged journalists to adhere strictly to the Syndicate's code of ethics and to check the accuracy of their information before publication so as not to fall into the libel trap.
The code of ethics prohibits journalists from making unjust accusations or slanderously exposing the private lives of individuals. If a journalist is accused of violating the code, he must face a Syndicate investigative committee which has to decide a course of action within 30 days. If the journalist is found guilty, a disciplinary board may give a reprimand, impose a fine, suspend the journalist from working for a year, or expel him from the Syndicate.
Last week, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) issued a statement urging authorities to scrap prison sentences for journalists and called for a national show of "solidarity with journalists to confront threats against freedom of the press in Egypt."
"The EOHR denounces prison sentences against journalists in trials linked to their profession. This is repression aimed at terrorising journalists," the statement said.
Four journalists, including Nassef and Fahmi, were sentenced to imprisonment for libel in January 1998. The two others were Magdi Hussein, chief editor of Al-Shaab, the mouthpiece of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party, and the newspaper's cartoonist, Mohamed Hilal. They were each sentenced to one-year imprisonment after they were convicted of slandering Alaa El-Alfi, the son of former Interior Minister Hassan El-Alfi. The two were jailed for four months before the Court of Cassation quashed the sentence.
Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist for Al-Ahram, told the Weekly that the number of journalists facing libel charges is on the increase because there is "confusion about what is libellous and what is news coverage or opinion." He said that there are newspapers, mainly those published under Cypriot licences, that "publish libellous items. This caused readers and prosecutors to suspect that the press in general indulges in the same practice. So, confusion prevails." Salama is of the opinion that journalists should not be imprisoned for publication offences.