Publish and be... jailed
reports on the latest stand-off between Egyptian journalists and the state
On 23 February 2004 President Hosni Mubarak promised the chairman of the Press Syndicate, Galal Aref, that the 1996 law that allowed custodial sentences to be imposed for publishing offences would be repealed.
Exactly two years on -- on 23 February 2006 -- and journalists received a rude reminder that the promise has yet to materialise, when a Cairo court sentenced Abdel-Nasser El-Zuhairi, a journalist with the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm, to one year in jail. He -- and two co-defendants -- were also ordered to pay LE10,000 in damages.
"My promise is still on, yet drafting a comprehensive [press] law that satisfies all parties, necessitates more time for study," Mubarak said on Tuesday, in statements made to the chief editors on his way back from his tour in the Gulf states.
The three journalists were accused of libeling former Minister of Housing Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman in a story that appeared in August 2004. The three received one-year jail sentences last April but were granted a retrial since the earlier judgment had been passed in absentia.
The new ruling sets journalists back on a collision course with the government, and not for the first time. Between 1995 and 1996 the Press Syndicate held no fewer than 10 general assemblies and eventually succeeded in having Law 93 for the year 1995, which included many vague provisions restricting press freedom, amended.
Following the judgment journalists vowed to unite and press for the abolition of the law that allows for custodial sentences, and the eventual annulment of El-Zuhairi's prison term, to which end Al-Masri Al-Youm has launched a campaign in coordination with the Press Syndicate.
Meanwhile, El-Zuhairi's defence team will contest the ruling before the Court of Cassation and the syndicate has already submitted an appeal to the prosecutor-general's office to suspend the sentence. Attempts are ongoing to effect a reconciliation between Suleiman and the 37 newspapers against which he has filed lawsuits which, if successful, will provide enough grounds for the prosecutor to suspend the sentence until the Court of Cassation rules.
During a meeting held on 25 February at the headquarters of the Nasserist Party's weekly organ Al-Arabi, more than a dozen editors-in-chief agreed to form a steering committee to coordinate the campaign against the present law and to lobby the People's Assembly to pass a new law, a draft of which, presented by the syndicate, still lingers in the corridors of the parliament.
The Press Syndicate has called for a general assembly to be held tomorrow to discuss the matter and take necessary protest actions. And on Saturday Aref has invited all chief editors, senior writers, journalist MPs and colleagues from other unions to meet at the syndicate's headquarters to discuss the campaign.
"The issue is grave," said Aref. "Inevitably it leaves a question mark over the integrity of government calls for reform, and its seriousness in abolishing a law that allows journalists to be jailed for what they write."
In a statement to the Middle East News Agency, Minister of Information Anas El-Fiqi said the president's promise still holds and that a draft law is ready to be presented to the People's Assembly during its current session. El-Fiqi further conveyed President Mubarak's commitment to safeguarding freedom of expression "which the president cherishes as the cornerstone of democracy".
Journalists are sceptical: "The situation is confusing," says Aref. "The failure to make good the promise leads to suspicions that corrupt members of government are dragging their feet about the law being repealed."
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Magdy El-Gallad, editor-in-chief of Al-Masry Al-Youm, voiced similar concerns. He noted that the margin of freedom allowed the press during last year's presidential and parliamentary elections is narrowing. Within the space of less than two weeks, he said, several chief editors have been summoned for questioning by the prosecutor-general on different occasions and for numerous reasons, "sending a clear message to the press that the government won't tolerate criticism anymore".
El-Gallad believes the state is increasingly worried that journalists will expose practices it would prefer to keep under wraps and is unwilling for many issues -- privitisation, the liberalisation of the economy and evidence of corruption among them -- to be scrutinised closely.
"The saga of the regime versus the press continues, and it [the regime] had to silence the press by using its oppressive arm," said El-Gallad.
Both Aref and El-Gallad are confident that journalists are capable of seeing the confrontation through. "We are seeking complete freedom, not one with chains. Freedom cannot be conditional on anyone's whims," said Aref.
The majority of journalists interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly expressed anger at El-Zuhairi's prison sentence. In the words of one: "We all need to unite to make our position clear to the government and the public. To the government we say we won't succumb to your pressures and tyrannical methods aimed at preventing us from unveiling corruption. And to the public we say: take note of our struggle and that we are being jailed for defending your legitimate right to know."
The syndicate's main demand centres on abolishing jail sentences and replacing them with monetary fines. In order to safeguard its independence, the Press Syndicate proposes that journalists who publish offences should be tried before a syndicate disciplinary commitee and in accordance with their profession's code of ethics.
In a related development, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent an open letter to President Mubarak: "The hopes spawned... have gradually given way to disappointment. Not only is your pledge unfulfilled but during this period journalists were sentenced to prison, harassed and assaulted for doing their job."
CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said the sentence "is a reminder that Egypt is a long way from recognising some of the most basic international standards for a free press... journalists should never be jailed for what they write."