Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Pressing for change

The presidential pardon granted to Al-Dostour 's Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Eissa is one step closer to the scrapping of custodial sentences for publication offences, writes Shaden Shehab

Ibrahim Eissa

Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of Al-Dostour, has received a presidential pardon after being convicted by the Boulaq Appeals Court of publishing misinformation concerning the health of President Hosni Mubarak.

The case has been pending since October 2007. In April the Boulaq Misdemeanours Court sentenced Eissa to six months in prison. The sentence was then appealed by prosecutors, who deemed it too light, only to be reduced to two months by the Appeals Court on 28 September. Both courts found Eissa guilty of a "dangerous crime" -- publishing information he knew to be false and inciting panic that caused foreign investors to withdraw $350 million from the stock exchange.

In announcing the pardon Presidential Spokesman Suleiman Awad said it affirmed President Mubarak's "solicitude for freedom of opinion and expression and for the freedom of the press" and "ensured that there could be no dispute between the office of president and any Egyptian citizen".

Rumours began to circulate that President Mubarak, 80, was seriously ill in August 2007. The stories appear to have originated on the Internet and were transmitted via SMS messages before being picked up by Al-Dostour.

Eissa said that he "welcomes" the pardon but would continue to oppose the policies of the regime. He was informed of the president's decision by the minister of the interior, after which, he says, they had "a very nice conversation" lasting more than an hour. Journalists, he continued, are awaiting the cancelling of all prison sentences for publication offences and he hoped his own "presidential pardoning would not boil down to an exception rather than become the rule".

Leading columnist Salama Ahmed Salama told Al-Ahram Weekly that the decree represented "a breakthrough".

"To a great degree it has dissolved tensions between the state and the press and will help recoup Egypt's international image on issues pertaining to freedom of expression."

International rights groups had described Eissa's conviction as politically oriented, accusing the government of seeking to intimidate opposition journalists.

Chairman of the Press Syndicate Makram Mohamed Ahmed said the pardon was a "wise step".

"Our greatest hope," he told the Weekly in a telephone interview from London, "was that the prosecutor-general would delay implementing the sentence until the Court of Cassation had given its final word". The pardon, he said, was "unexpected".

Ahmed had joined with Kamal Abul-Magd, the deputy chairman of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation, in petitioning the prosecutor-general to postpone the sentence. The "president's initiative opens a new page in relations between the regime and the press" and opens up a possibility for journalists to press for the cancellation of all custodial sentences for publication offences, he argued.

During the 2004 Fourth General Congress of Journalists President Mubarak promised that prison sentences for publication offences would be abolished. The courts, however, have continued to apply the sentencing provisions contained in the press law and penal code. Egypt is among only 12 countries that routinely imprison journalists.

There are several outstanding high-profile libel cases against journalists. Eissa and three other editors are currently appealing a 12-month sentence handed down after they were found guilty of defaming leading members of the National Democratic Party. Adel Hamouda, the editor in chief of the independent weekly Al-Fagr, is awaiting sentencing in a libel case filed by Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, after the paper published a doctored photograph of Tantawi wearing Papal garb, with a cross hanging at his breast. Tantawi has repeatedly refused to drop the case.

Ahmed and Salama both believe that hand in hand with demanding an end to custodial sentences journalists must take their responsibilities more seriously, criticising rather than ridiculing, and then only on the basis of solid evidence.

"The press should not publish false information. Journalists at both state-owned and independent newspapers have a responsibility to provide undistorted news," said Salama.

Before the announcement of the pardon a demonstration protesting Eissa's sentence had been planned for Tuesday at the Press Syndicate's Downtown Cairo headquarters. The organisers of the "day of anger" had hoped that opposition politicians and leading journalists would take part. The protest went ahead but attracted only a limited number of demonstrators.

"Eissa's pardon is an exception. It does not mean that journalists will no longer be jailed which is why we decided to go ahead with the protest," said Ibrahim Mansour, executive editor- in-chief of Al-Dostour.

"It is our right to have a free press and an independent judiciary," read the banner covering the entrance of the Press Syndicate. The handful of demonstrators was massively outnumbered by security forces and the event turned out to be little more than a press conference, with 45-year-old Eissa as the star.

"If my pardon prevented journalists from taking part in the protest then it is a problem," Eissa told his supporters. "The president realised that his being part of a court case was embarrassing for the state and represented a black day for press freedom. The pardon sends a clear message to members of the ruling party and other high-profile figures that press freedoms must be protected."

It is no secret that some within the NDP oppose the cancellation of custodial sentences for publication offences. And there are journalists working on state- owned papers who believe that the independent press has overstepped the mark in criticising senior officials and have called for dissenting editors to be severely punished.

Eissa, who in 2006 received an earlier conviction for insulting Mubarak -- at the time he was fined -- insists that the pardon will not prevent him from continuing his work as a journalist and that he fully intended to exercise his right to criticise the government in the same way that some other journalists showered it with praise.

"I don't believe that there is press freedom in Egypt. Journalists will only secure that by acting courageously, though there are some who would consider such courage foolish," he told supporters.

So will he continue aiming criticisms at President Mubarak?

Eissa's reply was perhaps more equivocal than usual.

"Wait and see," he told the demonstrators.

Additional reporting Nesmahar Sayed

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