A blow for press freedom
The case of journalist Islam Afifi has raised concerns about what can be published in Egypt, reports Mona El-Nahhas
President Mohamed Mursi issued a decree prohibiting the jailing of journalists pending trial on charges relating to their professional activities on 23 August. Under the current law, journalists can be remanded in custody pending trial if they have been charged with insulting the president, a law passed by ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.
Mursi's decree is the first legislation to be issued since he assumed legislative powers in mid-August following the annulment of the Complementary Constitutional Declaration issued by the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
The decree came just hours after the Giza Criminal Court had ordered the arrest of Islam Afifi, editor of the independent Al-Dostour newspaper, pending trial on charges of insulting the president in an article. Afifi has also been charged with spreading rumours that could disturb public safety and harm the public interest.
After the court announced its ruling, Afifi was sent to Tora Prison and ordered to be remanded in custody until his trial on 16 September.
Immediately after the issuing of the presidential decree, Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud ordered the release of Afifi and lifted the travel ban on him. A police truck brought Afifi from Tora Prison to Dokki police station in order to process his release.
After his release, Afifi welcomed the decree, but stressed that he would remain in the opposition. "Al-Dostour will continue to be an opposition publication and its critical positions will not change," Afifi said.
Last Thursday's court ruling that ordered the jailing of Afifi had stirred angry reactions among journalists and intellectuals in Egypt, with dozens protesting in Cairo last Thursday night and demanding the freedom of the press.
Human rights groups expressed their indignation at the court's decision to imprison Afifi, saying that it betrayed the values of last year's revolution that had deposed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's long-time authoritarian president.
"This is a sad day for media freedom in Egypt because, for the first time since the January 2011 Revolution, a professional journalist has been jailed for what he has written," the Paris-based organisation Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
Youth activist Wael Ghoneim, a former Google executive who played a key role in Egypt's uprising last year, wrote on Twitter that "insulting the president is a vague accusation that can be easily politicised."
Afifi's release does not mean that the case is over, since Afifi may face a jail penalty as a result of his trial. For Egypt's Press Syndicate, the annulment of the law jailing journalists pending trial is just the beginning of a larger struggle. While he welcomed the presidential decree, syndicate chairman Mamdouh El-Wali said that the syndicate wanted to see all laws threatening journalists and writers with jail abolished.
Mohamed Abdel-Qoddous, rapporteur of the Press Syndicate's Freedoms Committee, called for such articles, mentioned in the penal code, the publications law and the press law, to be replaced by financial penalties. These could be doubled, he said, adding that "none of the democratic countries applies such laws."
Vice President Mahmoud Mekki said that laws and legislative amendments aiming at lifting the shackles currently stifling press freedom would soon be issued.
"The new policy we are working on will ban the jailing of writers and journalists for expressing their opinions. We are studying the possibility of replacing jail terms with fines in cases of improper publication," Mekki told the Al-Masry Al-Youm daily on Saturday.
The Justice Ministry is in the process of drafting such legislation.
Afifi's case is one of several lawsuits filed by Islamists against journalists recently, accusing them of inciting the public against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor of the Sawt Al-Umma weekly, has also been charged with insulting the president in his articles.
Complaints have been filed with the prosecutor-general against Adel Hammouda, editor of the Al-Fagr newspaper, and Khaled Hanafi, the newspaper's managing editor, accusing them of libelling the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badei.
The Dokki prosecutor's office ordered the release of Hanafi earlier this week, after he had presented documents containing what he had published about the Brotherhood.
Another prominent case has been that of TV presenter Tawfiq Okasha, who was accused of inciting the murder of Mursi during a talk show aired on Al-Faraeen TV earlier this month.
Okasha has been banned from travelling outside the country pending his trial, which is due to start on 1 September.
Targeting journalists has also not been limited to filing lawsuits against them. On 8 August, Khaled Salah, editor of the Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper, was assaulted as he entered Cairo media city.
Salah has accused the leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, of inciting violence against him because of his critical views of the group.
FJP leaders hurried to deny the accusations, saying that they had had no connection with the assault.