Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 June 2001
Issue No.539
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Tabloids' outrageous toll

Mixing sex, religion and crime to boost the circulation of a tabloid has triggered a crisis that dealt a dangerous blow to national unity and press freedom. Shaden Shehab reports on the fallout

"I don't believe what I'm seeing and reading"; "How can this be published?"; "This is even more indecent than pornographic magazines". These were just some of the reactions among the public after glancing at Sunday's edition of the independent weekly newspaper Al-Nabaa. Their repugnance is understandable. The first three pages were splashed with pornographic photos. The language in headlines was sexually explicit. And worse, the accompanying story allegedly "exposed" the deviations of a man who should have been better known for his piety: a Coptic monk.

In fact, the "monk" in question, Barsoum El-Muharraqi, had been defrocked and excommunicated several years ago, which fact was conspicuous by its absence from the newspaper account. Instead, Mamdouh Mahran, Al-Nabaa's board chairman, chief editor and author of the article, excitedly described his story as "a scoop."

Soon after it hit the newsstands, Al- Nabaa triggered an uproar. Not only were the pictures and the language used unprecedented in Egypt, where pornography, and indeed any form of nudity, is banned by law, but for the whole episode was understood as a vicious slur directed to the Coptic Church and the Egyptian Coptic community as a whole.

Thousands of Copts staged unprecedented protests (see related story), members of parliament submitted interpellations and the Supreme Press Council and Press Syndicate ferociously condemned the newspaper. Mahran's syndicate membership was frozen.

Al-Nabaa's circulation rocketed until a court order confiscated all copies, and a similar story also appeared the following day in a daily paper, Akher Khabar, a sister publication to Al-Nabaa. Akher Khabar was also confiscated.

Security forces
Young angry Copts
Since the publication of the infamous issue of Al-Nabaa, thousands of Copts have been gathering at their Cathedral in Cairo in an unprecedented demonstration of anger
photos:Khaled El-Fiqi and Salah Ibrahim
Meanwhile, State Security Prosecutor Hisham Badawi interrogated Mahran on charges of spreading sensational misinformation; inciting hatred and contempt for a religious community; publishing photographs that offend public morality; and attempting to influence the judiciary. If convicted on all charges, Mahran faces nine years in jail. Meanwhile, Pope Shenouda has said that the Coptic Church will file a libel suit against Al-Nabaa.

On Tuesday, Mahran was released on LE10,000 bail. He was not held in custody because he was questioned on the basis of a 1996 press law which forbids the arrest of journalists under investigation and says they may be imprisoned only by court order.

Although sections are blurred, the published photographs, purportedly taken from videotapes made by the defrocked monk himself, appear to show him having sex with women. The accompanying article implies that this occurred inside the monastery of Deir Al-Muharraq in Assiut, a fourth-century monastery built on a site revered by Copts as having been visited by the Holy Family during the flight into Egypt. The church ferociously denies that the monastery was defiled.

"I did not do anything wrong or anything that I should regret," Mahran told Al- Ahram Weekly. "The photographs are not pornographic because they are blurred from the waist down, and this is not an offence in Islam," he added angrily. "I did not get the videotape from security officials but from a reporter who discovered that it was being sold for LE100 in Assiut. So, I was not an accomplice in any plan to malign the Church as some people would like to think. I published the story and the pictures in good faith with intent to make the Church take stricter measures."

Prosecutors said that they arrested El- Muharraqi and his brother last week in Assiut and brought them to Cairo for questioning. Prosecutors say that the two were arrested after a woman complained, saying she was a victim of their scheme. The woman reportedly went to the Church for help and informed the clergy of El- Muharraqi's behaviour. She told prosecutors that he blackmailed her with the videotapes and she had to pay him LE34,000; that he robbed her of a large amount of jewellery; and that he claimed he could help women conceive.

For the Egyptian press, already suffering the ill-effects of a proliferation of tabloid journalism, the Al-Nabaa melee came as a stunning blow. The Supreme Press Council hastened to condemn "all those who try to tamper with the values of our society and with national unity," and censured Al- Nabaa for "infringing on the traditions of society, its values and national unity." The Press Syndicate fiercely attacked Al-Nabaa for its "irresponsibility and attempt to harm the deep-rooted Egyptian Church." A statement said that Al-Nabaa published photographs and headlines "that are against society's morals and the journalistic code of ethics." Syndicate Chairman Ibrahim Nafie has tried in recent years to have prison sentences for publication offences cancelled. This latest scandal will make his task harder than ever. Nafie and members of the Syndicate's council visited Pope Shenouda at the Coptic Cathedral on Tuesday.

Other journalists commented, too. "Al- Nabaa went against all journalistic principles and will make our [journalists'] efforts to cancel provisions of imprisonment for publication offences an impossible task," Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist with Al-Ahram, told the Weekly.

Fahmi Howeidy, also an Ahram columnist, agreed with Salama. "The journalistic profession has become without norms or responsibility. It seems that the profession's main concern at present is to increase circulation, regardless of the price," Howeidy said.

The Church issued a statement on Sunday night identifying the ex-monk as Adel Saadalla Gabriel and stating that he had been defrocked and excommunicated in 1996. "The report published by the newspaper concerns a deviant person who has no relation with monasticism. The Church has no authority over his beard and the [clerical] garments behind which he hid and which he continued to wear without any right," the statement said. He was expelled for "abandoning the traditions of the Church and monasticism," the statement added, without elaborating on his conduct.

"There is no justification for dealing with this situation in an exaggerated way," the statement said. "The subject concerns Christian morality, provokes sectarian discord and has caused violent reactions among Copts," the statement concluded.

Pope Shenouda, in an interview with Egyptian television, asked the government to take "a firm position to heal Christians' wounds." He said, "To slander one of the Copts' greatest monasteries in banner headlines, saying that it has became a whorehouse: who can accept such a thing?"

Even the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood took offence. The secretary-general of the bar association, Seif El-Islam Hassan El- Banna, a member of the Brotherhood, announced solidarity with the Church in its libel case against Al-Nabaa. The Brotherhood also condemned Al-Nabaa for publishing material that "contravenes society's morals" and said it supports the government's action against the newspaper.

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