CAIRO: Less than a week after parliament promised to amend the law to prohibit the detainment of journalists as a result of their stories, an independent female reporter was sentenced to one year in prison in a libel case.
“Excessive [and] harsh, said Amira Malash, the sentenced journalist, referring to the court verdict. “The court was not objective in handling my case and the judge was apparently biased against journalists.
The sentence, given by a Cairo court on Tuesday, comes after a month-long press crisis where three independent reporters were sentenced and fined for allegedly libeling a former minister while he was in office. The latter case started an uproar in press circles and among concerned citizens, resulting in reconciliation between the journalists and the minister in question. The sentences were repealed and the case was deemed a victory for journalists.
Following this case, parliament said they would carry through on President Hosni Mubarak’s promise of freedom of expression by amending press laws to guarantee that journalists would never again be imprisoned.
A few days after this promise, Malash, a journalist in the independent daily Al-Fajr, was given what she called a “ruthless sentence and was also fined LE 10,000. For many journalists, the case shattered hopes of the recently promised absolute freedom of the press; some remarking that strife between journalists and government officials was far from over.
Meanwhile, Malash is currently “on the run, she tells The Daily Star Egypt. “I am not even staying at my own house. I cannot walk the streets freely. I could be arrested by an officer any time, says Malash, bringing to memory cases of journalists who were similarly prosecuted in Egypt, not long ago.
Malash who recounted the “appalling court procedures against her, says that she was informed of her sentence before the verdict was officially issued. “I was in court waiting for the sentence [and] I was informally told that the verdict would be against me so I escaped the court, with the help of some [sympathizers].
According to Malash, it took minutes for her sentence to be decided. Before the final court session started, Malash claims that she had heard the judge shouting in anger. “Everyone in the courtroom heard him, says Malash. “The judge was talking to my lawyers and telling them, ‘You say that there is no imprisonment for reporters anymore. I will show you there is still.’ He never gave any of [the lawyers] a chance to defend my case.
The trouble for Malash began last July after she had covered a corruption-related trial. Malash had been attending court sessions where a legal official was accused of accepting bribes. According to Malash, the co-defendants had also testified against the accused official.
“[The accusations] were not a secret so I went with the story for print, says the young reporter. A few weeks later, the official in question filed a libel case against Malash.
“What is more surprising than a case against me was the judge’s attitude, she says. “I believe [the judge] gave me this sentence in sympathy with his colleague [the legal official].
The sentence given to Malash was mandatory and accordingly Malash cannot appeal, pay a bail in order to be temporarily released or take her case to the cassation court.
The press syndicate published a report early Wednesday calling the case a breach of the vows of freedom of expression. Many local human rights groups took up the case, sending letters to the president, reminding him of promises of freedom and reform.
“The press syndicate is backing me up, says Malash. “Personally, I will send letters to the prosecution office, complaints and petitions, even to the president . until I get back my right as a journalist.
A number of concerned high-profile editors and reporters assembled Wednesday evening in the Cairo press syndicate to discuss Malash’s case. According to a press syndicate member, the press personnel meeting would issue resolutions and decisions on how to deal with the case.
“I exposed the corruption of an official, that’s not wrong, adds Malash. “There was no malice in my story; the defendant and I have never met . the judge showed his true intention [of wanting to detain me] from the very beginning of the court session.
The press syndicate lawyer, on another level, has already sent a legal request to Egypt’s prosecutor’s office in an attempt to freeze the sentence and apply for a review of the court procedures. If his request is accepted, the current sentence will be annulled and a new trial will ensue.