|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
14 - 20 December 2000
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A Diwan of contemporary life (368)
Although Egyptians might not always have enjoyed governance by an effective parliament, they have always found their voice in the press, an advocate for their freedom. Hence the truism that the press was in itself a parliament, an accurate representative of national opinion. Thus when restrictive press amendments were introduced in the mid-1920s -- in the wake of the fall of the Zaghlul government and the advent of the cabinet of Ziwar -- the move was seen as an assault, and not just on the press but on basic freedom. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk chronicles the struggle for press liberty, focusing on Al-Ahram, one famous victim of the broken pen
Muzzling the press
"What a change!" Al-Ahram readers must have said over and over again following the fall of the populist Saad Zaghlul government in November 1924 and the appointment of the Ziwar government which quickly showed such complete subservience to the crown that it entered Egyptian history as the first "royal cabinet."
The surprise was not only due to the sharp swings in policy but also to the turnabout against the press. In addition to Al-Ahram, the clamp down affected the Wafdist newspapers Kawkab Al-Sharq owned by Ahmed Hafez Awad; Al-Balagh owned by Abdel-Qader Hamza; the National Party newspapers Al-Akhbar owned by Amin El-Rafie; Al-Alam Al-Misri owned by Ali Fahmi Kamel, as well as Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, whose editor-in-chief was Mohamed Hussein Heikal; Kashkoul, a satirical magazine owned and operated by Suleiman Fawzi and which was noted for its frequent biting criticisms of the Wafd, the traditional enemy of the Liberal Constitutionalists; and finally, Al-Nizam, Abul-Hol and Al-Muqattam.
The assault against the press started with the Kashkoul. Shortly before Zaghlul left the prime minister's office, the offices of the magazine were attacked by Wafdist student demonstrators who severed the building's telephone lines, pelted its windows with stones, then broke down the doors and rushed into the building where they damaged the printing press and set fire to the paper storage room. Rather than pursuing and prosecuting the perpetrators, the government dragged Suleiman Fawzi before the court on charges of slandering the prime minister and defaming the parliament. The attack and trial had been triggered by an article in Kashkoul likening the members of the overwhelmingly Wafdist parliament to "apprentice office boys" and ridiculing them.
The case eventually went to a criminal court in which the prosecution sought to have the magazine closed down. Although the court dismissed the case, it fined the owner of Kashkoul, in absentia, LE30 and ordered the payment of one piastre in compensation to a parliamentary deputy who had sued.
In February the following year, several months after the installation of the Ziwar government, the court of appeals moved to reopen the Kashkoul case. Even though five months had passed since the attack on the magazine's offices, the premises of which also served as Fawzi's home, it must have come as some satisfaction to him that six of the students apprehended following the assault were brought to trial. Following four days of hearings, from 17 to 21 May, the court acquitted two of the defendants, sentenced a third to 15 lashes and sentenced the remaining three to three years in prison.
Al-Ahram received the second blow against the press. The newspaper had previously strained relations with the Wafd, whose leader it had at one time accused of dividing the nation, but by 1925 it had thoroughly rallied behind the large nationalist party, incensed at the collusion between the British high commissioner and the palace against the Wafd. Ziwar's Minister of Interior Sidqi Pasha was not inclined to permit any newspaper to voice support for the Wafd, even one as long-established as Al-Ahram. On Wednesday 4 March 1925, the newspaper announced that on the previous Monday, at 4.00pm, its assistant managing editor, Amin Khuri, had received an order from the Ministry of Interior to leave Egypt by 6.00pm that day. The newspaper goes on to report that an officer from Abdin police station accompanied Khuri on the train to Port Said and, the following morning, placed him on a ship destined for Beirut. The action against Al-Ahram provoked an outcry among representatives of the Egyptian press with the exception of Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, and Al-Ittihad, the mouthpiece of the political party of that name, both of which were known for their pro-palace sympathies.
It was not long after this that Ahmed Hafez Awad, owner of Kawkab Al-Sharq, one of the two Wafd Party mouthpieces, was brought to trial on charges of slandering George Lutfallah in an article that appeared in its edition of 21 March 1925. It attributed to the claimant "matters that if true the entire nation would have to hold him in contempt." There was little doubt that Lutfallah's suit against the Wafdist newspaper was directly encouraged by the minister of interior. This gave Al-Ahram considerable cause for misgivings, a premonition that the days ahead would prove justified.
The newspaper's sense of foreboding can be detected in several articles that began to appear towards the end of June 1925. Under the headline, "Newspapers and the News," Al-Ahram wrote that the freedom of the press that existed in Egypt was indicative of "the respect for civil freedoms, the equality of the people and our continued progress in spite of the current flaws." The article argued that as newspapers struggled under the pressures of changing policies and sensitive circumstances, they sometimes inadvertently printed inaccurate information for which they were held responsible and prosecuted. It advised, "It would be wiser were the government to help reporters by furnishing them with the correct information, for to ignore reporters' needs makes them vulnerable to obtaining incomplete or fallacious information from unofficial and irresponsible sources." The writer, Abdullah Hussein, goes on to assert that "the worst fate a newspaper could meet is for the public to find its tone and strategy distasteful and refuse to read it. In this case the press is no different from all other publications; indeed, all businesses."
"Freedom of the press -- Is it in danger?" asks the headline of an article that appeared on 5 July, reflecting Al-Ahram's growing consternation. The article came in response to reports that the Ziwar cabinet was contemplating "placing a yoke and fetters on the press" through a legislative amendment that would permit the courts to suspend or terminate a newspaper found guilty of a misdemeanour. The article warned, "Every step the government takes towards restricting the freedom of the press has long-range dire consequences, some of which are immediately apparent and others which emerge when power shifts to those political parties that do not support the current cabinet. When that occurs, those that have curtailed press freedoms in the days they held the reins of power in their hands will realise that they have given their political adversaries a formidable two-edged sword." However, if the government is determined to pursue such a move, the newspaper continued, at least it should invite a delegation of journalists in order to solicit their opinions on the regulations it wishes to introduce. It concluded with the caution: "Freedom cannot exist in the absence of a free press. There can be no advancement when voices are silenced and pens are smashed; no democracy if swords loom over the heads of those who say what they believe."
Five days later, there were no further doubts that the government planned to push ahead with certain amendments to the penal code as it applied to publication crimes. Although Al-Ahram had yet to learn the precise nature of the amendments, it was shocked that the government, in pursuing this course, was bypassing parliament. Article 15 of the 1923 constitution guaranteed freedom of the press and stipulated that freedom could only be restricted in accordance with the relevant provisions of the penal code, from which Al-Ahram concluded that "the executive does not have the authority to subject newspapers to censorship or to caution, suspend or terminate them." It adds that according to the law the promulgation and implementation of legislation without the approval of parliament can only take place under extraordinary circumstances, and goes on to remark, "The security of the country is sound. Egypt is under no threat externally or internally and the government is always announcing that we are progressing towards greater stability and tranquillity. So what is the condition that warrants this haste?"
The date 13 July 1925 marked one of the saddest days in the history of the Egyptian press. On that Monday the amendments to certain articles of the national penal code were promulgated, providing penalties for press offenses. Article 162 was amended to provide for a maximum of 18 months imprisonment or a fine not to exceed LE100 for publishing false information that, through misleading public opinion or any other means, could jeopardise public order. Article 166 imposed the same penalties against those found responsible for the publication of such false information, whether they be the authors of the material or the owners of the publishing houses. Of graver consequence, however, was Article 168 which stated, "A sentence passed against a perpetrator of a criminal act by means of published material will ultimately entail the termination of the newspaper." In addition, whereas this article had formerly stipulated imprisonment for lèse-majesté, it now added the further punishment of "the permanent closure of the newspaper."
illustration: Makram Henein
Al-Ahram opened its denunciation of the amendments with Thomas Jefferson's famous remark, "I would rather live in a country that has a press without law than a country that has law without a press." It observed the outcry throughout the country in response to the announcement of "the new restrictions on the freedom of the press, preventing it from fulfilling its pledge to inform readers of the facts." The Ziwar government has obstructed parliament twice, the newspaper said. The first occasion occurred on 23 March 1925 when it dissolved the elected Chamber of Deputies. The second time was on 13 July with the promulgation of the amended penal code which constituted "a dismissal of the parliament of public opinion." It explained, "Although the people of this country have lived for a long time without an effective parliament, they always found in its newspapers a voice for their will, a forum for their demands, an advocate for their freedom, a champion against their adversaries, a sustenance of their struggle. As such our press has been a parliament faithfully representative of national opinion."
Most other newspapers echoed the sentiments of Al-Ahram, but the three pro-government newspapers, Al-Ittihad in particular, attempted to justify the amendments. Al-Ahram asserted that all journalists from all other newspapers are no less keen than the government to avoid publishing false information and rumours, "because the material and moral interests of their newspapers rest upon their credibility and clarity of judgment."
If Ziwar government circles had thought that protests such as those expressed in Al-Ahram would soon die out, they were mistaken.
At 6.00pm on Monday, 13 July, in the home of Tadros Bek Shenouda El-Munqabadi, owner of Misr newspaper, a meeting was held among the representatives of every Egyptian newspaper except Al-Ittihad. Also attending were representatives of foreign newspapers like La Liberté. Even though under the still existent capitulations system these newspapers would still have been immune to the new law, they had decided to show solidarity with their Egyptian colleagues in their defence of the freedom of the press.
The participants resolved to declare a one-day strike in protest against the notorious amendments, setting Thursday 16 July as the date. They also moved to dispatch the text of the new law to foreign journalists' syndicates in order to solicit their opinion on the subject. Finally, they would ask the various national political parties and legal syndicates to declare their views on, as they put it, "this colossal disaster."
Less than 24 hours later, the participants held a second meeting, this time in the offices of Al-Akhbar, to formulate an official letter of protest to be submitted to the prime minister. The petition stated that the amendments were unconstitutional on the grounds that they were issued by an authority that was not empowered to do so and that if the cabinet had wanted to hasten their promulgation they should have called for an extraordinary session of parliament. The amendments violated the most fundamental principles of freedom, as they were founded on the assumption that man is fundamentally evil rather than good. Moreover, the amendments were too vaguely worded and the penalties too harsh, rendering most newspapers excessively vulnerable to closure, which "constitutes an abominable assault on the rights of ownership."
On the same day, the board of directors of the Egyptian Printing Press Workers Union met to protest the new law which placed newspapers in jeopardy and, therefore, "is injurious to the maintenance of our standards of living and to the material needs of our families."
On 16 July, as planned, the journalists who had met the previous Monday put into effect their resolution to suspend publication for a day, marking "a precedent in the history of the Egyptian press," they announced. According to Al-Ahram of the following day, although three pro-government newspapers, as expected, were the only ones to depart from unanimity, the strike was nevertheless effective. "It was apparent to all that yesterday's decision to suspend publication was not merely a day for newspapers to close their offices and for their staff to take a day off. Rather, it had far-reaching implications both at home and abroad. In their sympathy with the newspapers, press workers, too, declared a strike, while the great majority of newspaper vendors also shared these sentiments and refused to sell newspapers that appeared yesterday. The public, meanwhile, offered newspaper owners all possible support and encouragement and most of the foreign correspondents in Egypt dispatched news of the strike to their head offices in Europe."
One of the newspapers which received these reports was the London-based Near East, which observed that the fears expressed by Egyptian newspaper owners and editors-in-chief were warranted. It went on to claim that the British authorities in Egypt had been extremely liberal towards the press before and during World War I and that "they were far more tolerant of severe criticism than the Egyptian ministers." Whatever the motives of this commentary, it was not entirely accurate, as an examination of the history of the Egyptian press reveals that the promulgation of the 1909 Press and Publications Law did far more damage to press freedom in Egypt than any other legislation.
Egyptian political parties were also quick to lend their voices to the protest against the assault on the freedom of the press. On 17 July Al-Ahram published Saad Zaghlul's statement on the new law, saying it was "unconstitutional because the cabinet does not have the right to amend it. Furthermore, it violates the general principles regarding the definition of criminal intent. In the end it can only do great harm because it prevents newspapers from publishing many facts, the dissemination of which can forestall great danger and bring considerable benefit."
Three weeks later, on 3 August, the National Party issued a lengthy communiqué asserting that the amended penal code "impinges on one of our most sacred rights, the constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of the press, and violates the people's right to legislate." As such, the new law was "reactionary, contrary to the principles of legislation and in contravention of the constitution which the ministers had sworn to uphold."
Also in August, Al-Ahram featured a daily column entitled "Public Opinion Protests the Restriction of Freedom of the Press," in which it published the letters and declarations it received from individuals and groups throughout the country.
"Every law that restricts freedom of opinion is a crime," wrote Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed, quoting Anatole France. That one or two newspapers published libellous material did not mean placing the sword over the heads of other newspapers, he said. Another writer, Fikri Mansour, quoted Lord Cromer, the former high commissioner for a quarter of a century, who wrote in one of his annual reports, "I do not deem it necessary or appropriate to impinge upon the complete freedom that the press enjoys in Egypt. True, that freedom can be harmful, but I am certain that its benefits far outweigh its disadvantages." He implied that the domineering high commissioner had been more lenient than the heavy-handed king.
Against the onslaught of criticism, the Ziwar government, in attempting to defend itself, countered that the previous government had also sought to repress press freedoms and that its leader, Saad Zaghlul, had personally targeted the heads of opposition newspapers. "The proof of this can be seen in his actions towards Al-Siyasa, which was subjected to illegal administrative closure, although the law states that such actions can only be instituted by court order. It can also be found in his detention of journalists because of their assault on his character and in the illegal search that was conducted of the home of the owner of Kashkoul in connection with an article that appeared in the magazine."
Of course, the government's argument was weak, a fact that Al-Ahram quickly noted when it responded. "No cabinet or governing body should justify its actions in terms of the actions of a previous cabinet or governing body. Every government should seek progress, not regression," it wrote.
The newspaper's advice fell on deaf ears. On 20 October, after the public reactions to the new law had died down somewhat, King Fouad issued a royal decree ordaining that newspapers that commit offences deemed harmful to the government be referred to the criminal court, whereas the existing law had only stipulated such an action with regard to individuals.
Armed with this legal arsenal, the Ziwar government began its assault against opposition newspapers. Three newspaper chiefs were brought before the court in one go: Abdel-Qader Hamza from Al-Balagh, Hafez Awad of Kawkab Al-Sharq and Amin El-Rafie of Al-Akhbar. The charges they faced were related to stories their papers published on the allegedly illegal sale of the prime minister's residence to the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) ostensibly to the personal benefit of Ziwar Pasha himself. Soon, when the Liberal Constitutionalists withdrew from the government, their newspaper, Al-Siyasa, was also targeted. The campaign against the press came to an end only with the fall of the Ziwar government in 1926, but the respite was only temporary -- to which the history of successive Egyptian governments offers ample testimony.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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