Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Pressing ahead with protest

Shaden Shehab finds that journalists are adamant about taking whatever steps are necessary to force the government to abandon prison sentences for publication offences

"Journalists are not seeking a miracle. They are asking for the abolition of custodial offences for publication offences. They will press for this using peaceful means and if that does not work they will consider other means," vowed former Press Syndicate Chairman Kamel Zoheiri, to the applause of hundreds of journalists gathered for the syndicate's general assembly.

The journalists' general assembly coincided with the meeting of judges at the nearby Judges Club. They, too, vowed to continue their confrontation with the government until their demands are met.

"The timing is right. With so many forces pressing the government for reform the chances for change are good," said veteran columnist Salama Ahmed Salama. "The government has to proceed with political reforms. There can be no going back."

Plans to pressure the government to cancel prison sentences for publication offences topped the agenda of last Friday's Press Syndicate general assembly. Though, technically, the decision lies in the hands of parliament it is no secret that unless the government gives the green light MPs from the majority National Democratic Party will never endorse the necessary legislation.

Journalists are asking that the draft press law, drawn up by the syndicate several years ago, be submitted to parliament for discussion.

Prior to the opening of the Fourth General Congress of Journalists in 2004, President Hosni Mubarak informed Press Syndicate Chairman Galal Aref that custodial sentences for publication offences were no longer applicable. Journalists applauded the move, confident it meant they would never again spend time behind bars because of something they had written. As Aref put it at the time, "it means nobody in Egypt will ever again be imprisoned for their opinions."

Such optimism proved premature. The current furore surrounding the issue has been fuelled by the prison sentences of two journalists within a week of one another -- Abdel-Nasser El-Zuhairi, of the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, and Amira Malash of the independent weekly Al-Fagr. In addition, more than 100 journalists await court rulings, meaning many more could end up behind bars. Without amending the 1996 press law, Mubarak's decision boils down to no more than good intentions.

Since Law 93 -- stipulating severe penalties for publication offences -- was passed in 1995, journalists have been campaigning unsuccessfully to have prison penalties dropped. While they did succeed in having the law repealed the replacement legislation, introduced in 1996, also included provisions for custodial sentences, though for shorter terms. Under the 1996 law libel is punishable by a maximum of one year in jail, and/or a LE1,000 to 5,000 fine. If the subject of the libel is a public official, then the maximum penalty increases to two years and/or a LE5,000 to 20,000 fine.

During last Friday's assembly, chaired by Aref, a plan of action was drawn up. It was agreed that a second general assembly be held on 17 April, allowing the government time to undertake the steps necessary to introduce new legislation. If no action is taken then a variety of measures -- from demonstrations in front of the Abdin Palace and parliament to sit-ins and, in the last resort, an all out strike -- will be considered.

Aref warned that some officials -- he called them the "corruption lobby" -- will fight any change to existing legislation in an attempt to discourage journalists from investigating cases of corruption.

Salaheddin Hafez, secretary-general of the Arab Journalists' Federation, agreed, saying that such a lobby had already tailored a press law that stiffens sentences.

Makram Mohamed Ahmed, a leading writer, remains optimistic that the campaign will ultimately be successful. "The president has promised -- and there are government assurances -- that prison sentences will be scrapped in the new press law."

Hafez also demanded that the appointment of editors-in-chief of national newspapers be approved by journalists working within the organisations in question. A new batch of chief editors was appointed less than a year ago, replacing the previous generation, many of whom had held their posts for more than a quarter of a century. The government-selected replacements can hardly be said to have won the confidence of a majority of journalists.

Only this week the popular satirical writer Ahmed Ragab stopped his column Al-Fahhama and front page cartoon Kafr Al-Hanadwa (in which he provides a cartoonist with a comment to be illustrated) claiming he had been censored by Momtaz El-Ott, chief editor of the weekly Akhbar Al-Youm. On Dream satellite TV's 10 O'clock programme El-Ott said he had only removed an "irrelevant word that might have harmed Muslim- Christian relations". While Ragab has refused to comment he is continuing to write Nos Kelma (Half a Word), a few lines of satire on current events that runs in the sister publication Al-Akhbar, which has a different editor-in-chief.

During Friday's general assembly journalists also demanded that the Higher Press Council -- an affiliate of the Shura Council -- approve a request to raise the "humiliating" wages journalists earn submitted more than a year ago. Press Syndicate Secretary Yehia Qallash said that journalists often have to work for several publications just to make ends meet.

"Journalists should have the time and freedom to expose society's problems rather than being bogged down in their own," he said.

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