Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Press on trial

The upcoming trial of six journalists for alleged publishing offences puts the future of press freedom at risk, reports Mona El-Nahhas

Press on trial
Press on trial
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Press Syndicate Council is due to hold a meeting within the next few days to discuss the repercussions of a recent decree issued by an investigating judge referring six journalists to Criminal Court for publishing false news. The trial’s opening date has not been announced.

On 6 January, Judge Fathi Al-Bayoumi, assigned by the Justice Ministry to investigate the disputed purchase of a piece of land by the Port Said Judges Club, referred the journalists, including three chief editors, to Criminal Court for publishing false news defaming Justice Minister Ahmed Al-Zend.

In its first reaction to Al-Bayoumi’s decree, the Press Syndicate Freedoms Committee issued a statement condemning the attack against the press and the attempt to diminish the right of expression. “Using the right of litigation in such a way and by a senior official against journalists reflects anger at the press,” the statement said, adding that the latest practices targeting the profession indicate the state’s intolerance of criticism.

Khaled Al-Balshi, rapporteur of the Freedoms Committee, stressed that the syndicate will fully support the six journalists. Sources at the syndicate revealed that the council will try to persuade the justice minister to drop the case.

Gamal Fahmi, a former Press Syndicate Council member, expressed hope that the case will end in reconciliation “instead of pursuing journalists”, adding that there are other legal means by which the minister could have appealed, such as the right of reply.

The journalists due to stand trial are Hisham Younis, chief editor of Al-Ahram’s Arabic news website; Ahmed Amer, a reporter for the website; Abdel-Halim Qandil, chief editor of the independent Sawt Al-Omma newspaper; Gamal Sultan, chief editor of the independent Al-Masreyoon; Mahmoud Sultan, its executive chief editor; and Iman Yehia, a reporter at Al-Masreyoon.

The story published on the Al-Ahram website in 2014 accused Al-Zend of misusing his post as the then-chairman of the Judges Club by selling a piece of land owned by the Port Said Judges Club to his wife’s cousin at a below-market price. The two newspapers, according to a complaint filed by Al-Zend in 2014, published the same news.

At the time of the complaint, Cairo Appeals prosecution questioned the six without referring them to court. The case resurfaced only last month, when the Justice Ministry assigned Al-Bayoumi to follow up on the investigation.

“Al-Bayoumi called us in via the Press Syndicate. It was a hasty investigating session,” Younis told Al-Ahram Weekly. “We are ready for the trial. We have a lot to reveal to public opinion,” Younis said. Sultan was quoted as saying that he was preparing new documents “that will surprise Al-Zend.”

Al-Zend became minister in May 2015 after heading Egypt’s Judges Club for six years.

On Tuesday, 19 January, Ibrahim Mansour, chief editor of the independent Al-Tahrir newspaper, is due to give his account regarding another complaint filed by Al-Zend, this one accusing the newspaper of insulting the judiciary by publishing an interview with the chairman of the Central Auditing Agency, Hesham Geneina, under the headline “Infiltrated judges”. Hoda Abu Bakr and Ismail Al-Weseimi, two Al-Tahrir reporters, were questioned on 6 January in connection with the same charge.

“This is totally unacceptable,” said Yehya Qallash, chairman of the Press Syndicate, commenting on the latest legal procedures taken against the journalists. “It is an attempt to intimidate journalists and silence them.
“Instead of taking these punitive measures, the justice minister could have simply used the right of reply to what was published against him, especially since there is nothing personal against him.”

Egypt is ranked near the bottom of the 2015 press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, coming 158 out of 180 countries.

“The press is currently passing through its worst time in Egypt’s history,” Al-Balshi said, adding that 32 journalists have been detained under various charges, the latest of whom is Ismail Al-Iskandarani, who was arrested in November.

Charges that journalists usually face are either belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood or instigating violence through publishing false news.

Photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as Shawkan, has been held for more than two years without trial, despite serious health problems. Shawkan was arrested in August 2013 while covering the forced dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

At a sit-in held last month at the headquarters of the Press Syndicate calling for the release of detained colleagues, Qallash stressed that the syndicate will never give up the rights of all detained journalists.
Asked about the role of the syndicate regarding the case of the six journalists, Qallash told the Weekly that legal representatives from the syndicate attended the investigations with the journalists and will monitor the case and offer them all the support they need. “A meeting of the syndicate council is due to be held in the next few days to define the steps we will take,” Qallash said.

According to Qallash, the timing of the referral of the six to trial is “somewhat worrying”, following the government’s announcement of the start of discussions on legislation complementary of the constitution, one of which is the law regulating press and media affairs.

With the Justice Ministry acting as one of the main entities entitled to discuss and endorse such legislation, there is concern among journalists that the draft law they submitted to the government in October will be replaced. “We heard about attempts by two ministers to empty our draft law of its content and submit a totally different version, one that would be far from our expectations,” Qallash said.

The six-chapter unified press and media draft law was prepared by a 50-member committee formed by the Press Syndicate, the Supreme Press Council and the still-to-be-established Syndicate of Radio and Television Workers.

It stipulates that jail sentences for publishing and expressing offences should be annulled. In addition to placing guarantees for press freedom, the draft law — the preparation of which took nearly one year — also set conditions for selecting the chief editors and board chairmen of state-owned newspapers.

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