Fatwas against journalists and unjustified prosecutions were used to protect regime officials and a dozen journalists went on trial in 2007. President Hosni Mubarak pushed through constitutional amendments criticised by the opposition and potentially dangerous to the media.
Despite the state of emergency and other repressive laws, the country’s journalists have fought for the past decade against restrictions imposed on them by President Hosni Mubarak and his government. Privately-owned opposition media and independent media outlets, alongside the official media controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), have made significant headway and broken down several taboos despite judicial, bureaucratic and economic pressure. Journalists now dare to criticise Mubarak’s policies, including Egypt’s relationship with the United States.
A constitutional reform approved by parliament in March 2007 included an amendment (to article 179) that could threaten journalists, giving the authorities power to arrest people suspected of terrorism, search their homes, spy on their mail and tap their phones without a court order.
The regime was tougher on journalists in 2007 and a dozen were prosecuted for harming “the country’s interests,” “national security” and “the reputation of the judiciary.”
Four editors were each sentenced in September to a year at hard labour for “putting out false news harming the reputation and interests of the country” and for defamation, and were also fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds (€2,600). A lawyer member of the NDP had sued Ibrahim Issa, of the weekly Al-Dustur, Adel Hammuda, of the weekly Al-Fagr, Wael al-Abrashi, of the independent paper Sawt al-Umma, and Abdel-Halim Qandil, of the weekly Karama, for libelling Mubarak, his son Gamal, deputy secretary-general of the NDP, and the prime minister and interior minister in articles that appeared between July and September 2006. Their appeal hearings are set for 2008.
Soon afterwards, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the country’s grand mufti, who is also rector of the Al-Azhar mosque, used a ceremony attended by Mubarak to issue a fatwa calling for journalists convicted of defamation to be given 80 lashes. He also urged a boycott of newspapers that published “news considered false or inaccurate by the courts.” The resulting outcry led him to cancel the fatwa and he said his words had been “distorted.”
Issa (of Al-Dustur) was also prosecuted for “putting out false news undermining national security” by reporting that there were rumours Mubarak’s health was failing. The head of the central bank and the chairman of the stock exchange regulatory body testified that there was no link between the articles and falling share prices. The prosecutor wanted to prove the paper had triggered a flight of several hundred million euros worth of foreign capital. The government-controlled Supreme Press Council set up two commissions to investigate the rumours. Issa faces up to four years in prison.
Howayda Taha, of the satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, was sentenced on 2 May to six months in prison and fined EGP20,000 (€3,500). She had been briefly held for questioning at the beginning of the year as she was completing an investigation of the use of torture in police stations. She has appealed against the sentence.
The Internet, a political tool
The Internet has enabled journalists and bloggers to report anything that cannot be mentioned in the printed media. The power of the Internet was also shown by the unprecedented arrest and imprisonment of two government officials for torturing prisoners after the results of their actions were shown in a video posted online.
Blogger Abdel Nabil Suleiman (“Kareem Amer”) was sentenced to four years in prison in February for “incitement to hatred of Islam” on his blog and for insulting Mubarak. He became the symbol of online repression for the country’s bloggers. Another blogger, Abdul Moneim-Mahmud, spent two months in prison accused of belonging to an “illegal organisation,” the Muslim Brotherhood. But his imprisonment was probably because he had posted text and photos online exposing torture by the security services.