CAIRO: Journalists and political activists gathered at Cairo s Journalists Syndicate to discuss the detainment of Al-Masry Al-Youm reporters one year ago for what the government called irresponsible, false attacks against a public figure. Abdel-Nasser Al-Zoheiry was sentenced earlier this week to one year imprisonment for allegedly slandering Egypt s former housing minister, Ibrahim Suleiman.
Two of his colleagues, Alaa Al-Ghatrify and Yousseff Al-Oumi were released, but only after getting slapped with LE 10,000 in fines. Al-Masry Al-Youm paid the fines on behalf of its reporters, and denied that any apology was made to Suleiman.
The Syndicate, which served as a forum for democratic debate and protest throughout last year s election period, has reacted firmly to the recent sentencing, calling upon President Hosni Mubarak himself to intervene. A number of international nonprofit organizations for journalists rights, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters sans Frontiers, have also spoken out on behalf of the journalists.
We are all upset, but the fact is, words will only get us so far, said Mohamed Abdel Kouddous, spokesman for the Press Syndicate. Action is our only hope for change. We cannot sit idle and allow our rights to be taken from us.
Journalists have grappled with the government in recent months as they seek to win their rights as part of the wind of change that has blown through Egypt. Still, the country remains one of 14 that jails journalists convicted of libel. Last summer, Mubarak revisited his two-year pledge to amend a 1996 legislation that lays down jail terms for reporters convicted of libel.
Talk of the amendment was delayed, Mubarak saying he would follow through with it following the presidential elections in September. There has been no word since that the law would be reversed.
I believe that this incident has really cast into light a question of freedom in Egypt, freedom of the press, Al-Ghatrify tells The Daily Star Egypt. We look to deliver our message without fear or intimidation. But reform is a feeling from within the society. Journalists are the pulse of that society.
We must actively respond to this [government] that stifles the work of journalists, said Hannan Fahmy, an editor for Al-Wafd newspaper, adding it is the responsibility of all journalists to stand by colleagues who have been subjected to such injustice. There must be rapid action. We cannot stay quiet more than this.
The on-going controversy surrounding a cartoon depiction of the Prophet Mohammed published first in Denmark, then in a number of other countries, was also addressed by members of the Syndicate. Those speaking on the panel sought to emphasize the difference between freedom of the press and irresponsible journalists. The press council called for international laws to dictate the standards of reporting worldwide.
In the western countries, there are laws preventing the defamation of people with regard to their skin color, ethnicity or religion, noted Hussein Abdel-Razek, secretary general of the Maxist Tagammu party. This is a question of cultural respect and understanding, to understand is to respect. This is lacking in the case of Denmark, on all sides.