CAIRO: Egypt was ranked seventh in the world’s top 10 “backsliders by the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ).
In its annual report, CPJ listed the top 10 countries where press freedom has deteriorated most in the last five years.
The report said 2007 was the worst year for journalism and press freedom in a decade.
According to the report 65 journalists were killed in 2007, 32 of them in Iraq. This is more than double the number of fatalities recorded a decade ago; CPJ lists the number of journalists killed in 1997 as 26.
The report, “Attacks on the Press in 2007 which was launched yesterday simultaneously in several cities across the world including Cairo, presents country summaries detailing attacks and restrictions on journalists and freedom of expression.
Speaking in a press conference to launch the report held in the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists, Gamal Fahmy, a member of the Syndicate’s board of trustees, said that there was cause for optimism despite the marked deterioration of press freedom in Egypt.
“There is something to celebrate – Egyptian journalists’ resistance to oppression. This is reflected in the decision by independent newspapers last year not to print for a day to protest the prosecution of journalists, Fahmy told the press conference. “It demonstrates the vitality of Egyptian society, he added.
Kamal Labidi, CPJ’s regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa region echoed this.
“The deterioration of journalistic freedom has had an inverse effect; 2007 witnessed protests of a type which we haven’t seen before, Labidi said. “Arab journalists don’t fear the intimidation of Arab governments, he continued.
CPJ’s report nevertheless presents a grim picture of press freedom in Egypt in 2007. It describes several prosecutions of journalists including Al-Dostour editor Ibrahim Eissa who in August of last year raised questions about the state of President Hosni Mubarak’s health.
He was charged with harming public interest in a decision which the report suggests was seen by many “as settling scores with one of the most vocal critics of Mubarak’s 26-year rule.
In a separate case four independent and opposition editors were convicted for spreading “false information while on Sept. 24 three editors from Al-Wafd daily were convicted of criminal libel and sentenced to two years imprisonment.
The report’s introduction to the Middle East and North Africa section describes how Arab governments – conscious that outright violations such as torture and abductions will harm their international image – are resorting to less direct methods of intimidating journalists, such as job dismissals and politically motivated lawsuits in many instances brought by third-party government supporters.
Joel Campagna, one of the report’s authors and CPJ’s Senior Program Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa region told Daily News Egypt that these non-direct methods are used less in Egypt than elsewhere in the region.
“Governments are still using direct forms of confrontation; we see it in Egypt where reporters covering demonstrations were attacked and people like Ibrahim Eissa in court and Kareem Amer in jail, Campagna explained.
The report also describes the imprisonment of bloggers, a new phenomenon in Egypt in 2007. In February 2007, 22-year old blogger Kareem Amer was sentenced to four years imprisonment on charges of defaming the president of the republic and inciting hatred for Islam.
His imprisonment was a prelude to that of Abdel-Moneim Mahmoud, who was detained for several weeks in April of last year, apparently for using his blog to condemn the trial of civilians in military tribunals in Egypt.
Three bloggers from the Arab region are currently imprisoned; Fouad El-Farhan from Saudi Arabia, Selim El-Boukdir from Tunisia and Kareem Amer.
At the end of 2007 the Egyptian Administrative Court dismissed a case brought by judge Abdul Fattah Murad calling for the banning of 51 Internet websites in Egypt.
Campagna suggests that while this was a positive development, freedom of expression for Egyptian bloggers remains under threat and that it is too early to determine the effect of the Internet on democratisation in the Arab region.
“The freedom of expression of the blogosphere in Egypt is tenuous as evidenced by the detention of bloggers, the imprisonment of Kareem Amer. The fact that a judge would bring such a bold case to the court reflects how people are attempting to restrict the media in Egypt, he said.
“In many of the lawsuits brought against journalists we’ve seen these third party lawsuits, cases where members of the ruling party bring charges against journalists. The use of these third party lawsuits shows how governments are using these subtly subversive tactics to silence journalists, Campagna added.