CAIRO: On May 3 an Egyptian court will hear an appeal against a six-month prison sentence handed down to the editor of El-Dostour for an article published concerning the health of the President Hosni Mubarak.
Somewhat ironically, the day of the hearing is also World Press Freedom Day.
The editor, Ibrahim Eissa, has already been sentenced – together with three other newspaper editors – to a one-year term in a separate case for publishing ‘offences’.
Industry observers maintain that the Egyptian press remains shackled by a host of draconian laws imposed by a regime unversed in self-scrutiny. Yet it’s attempts to shape and control information have been rendered futile by the internet, yet beyond their reach.
But while bloggers and other internet activists may have destroyed the state’s monopoly on information, this hasn’t stopped the continued punishment of journalists who dare to challenge the “newspeak published in the state-owned press, and who risk being imprisoned for doing so.
In its annual report this year the New York-based Committee for the Freedom of Journalists ranked Egypt at number seven in its top-ten list of backsliders on press freedom during the past five years.
The report painted a grim picture of press freedom in Egypt in 2007, a year in which according to “Freedom of Expression in Egypt, a report by the Arabic Network for Human Rights, libel and defamation charges were used “extensively against journalists.
Over 30 articles in the Egyptian Penal Code impose penalties for publishing crimes. Articles 171-200 lay down custodial sentences for vaguely-worded offences.
Article 188, the article under which El-Dostour Ibrahim Eissa was found guilty, criminalizes “publishing false information which damages national stability. In August 2007 Eissa published articles about rumors suggesting that 80-year-old President Mubarak is in ill health.
The prosecution’s case was that these articles damaged the Egyptian economy by undermining foreign investor confidence.
Notably, the judge who heard the case and found Eissa guilty said that according to his interpretation of article 188, it was not necessary to prove that the false information published had actually damaged national stability.
“The law imposes huge restrictions on what we can write about, Omar Said, a journalist with the independent Al-Badeel told Daily News Egypt.
“It bans criticism of the president and criminalizes the publication of information about the financial integrity of businessman for example, he continued.
Tight restrictions are also imposed on who may produce a newspaper: the right is limited to political parties (the legal recognition of which is itself subject to the whim of the Shoura Council’s Political Parties Committee) and joint-stock companies with assets not less than LE 1 million (for daily publications) who must then apply for a licence.
All publications licensed in Egypt are subject to the scrutiny of the Supreme Press Council, a state-controlled body presided over by the head of the Shoura Council (currently Safwat El Sherif) empowered to supervise and censor journalists and journalistic institutions.
The near impossibility of getting a licence in the 1990s pushed many potential publishers abroad, among them Hisham Kassem, then editor of the now defunct English-language magazine Cairo Times.
Licensed in Cyprus, the highly critical weekly was frequently banned because of its content, under a publications law which allows the Interior Minister to ban individual editions of foreign newspapers and magazines.
Kassem, who went on to found independent Arabic-language daily Al-Masry Al-Youm before leaving it in 2006 is currently in the process of launching another daily.
Will he seek licensing abroad in order to circumvent the lottery-like domestic licensing process?
Kassem is resolute: “Never again. Why shouldn’t I get a licence here? It makes my blood curdle when I think that the authorities can force me into that situation again, he told Daily News Egypt.
“The law says that I can get a licence. So who do Hosni Mubarak or Safwat El Sherif think they are to violate that law? The bottom line is I get my licence or I die trying.
Kassem predicts that blocking tactics by administrative bodies and court appeals against such manoeuvres will make the licensing process take six to nine months rather than 60-90 days.
Outside of the limits placed by the law, more insidious restrictions hamper journalism in Egypt, in the form of harassment by security bodies, arbitrary detention and even physical violence.
“In January of this year I was arrested four times and held for a few hours before they released me, Said told Daily News Egypt.
“I was brought before the state security prosecution office on one of these occasions, on Jan. 17 while covering a protest.
Egypt’s security apparatus, armed with the extensive powers granted to it under the 27-year-old state of emergency and virtual impunity for rights abuses, has consistently demonstrated poor respect for the rights of journalists.
In 2005, female journalists covering protests against constitutional amendments were sexually assaulted by thugs allegedly hired by the ruling National Democratic Party while security bodies stood by and watched.
Last month, journalists faced huge obstacles while attempting to cover the uprising against soaring food prices in the Delta town of Mahalla. Two journalists, James Buck, a US citizen, and Amina Abdel Rahman were detained illegally in the Mahalla police station – for 24 hours and three days respectively – while others were prevented from entering the town and detained for hours (again, illegally) before being released.
Still other tactics are used to control independent publications. Kassem says that when the authorities found no other means of blocking Cairo Times they resorted to undermining its financial base.
“The minister of information basically used to threaten advertisers, Kassem alleges, “I got advertisers telling me: ‘It’s a fine magazine .but when we put our advertisements there, we get problems,’ Kassem said.
External pressures compound the institutional malaise that pervades Egyptian journalism. Low pay, self-censorship, shareholder interference, partisan editorial lines and non-existent professional standards are, Kassem suggests, “the consequence of 50 years of military rule and their destruction of the four estates, including the press.
Said agrees. “I consider myself lucky because I work in a leftist paper. There’s not the same pressure on writers from the owner or editor to prevent them writing about certain things, or to put forward a certain point of view.
In addition, the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate is, as Said points out, “the only syndicate in the world which forces journalists – who are supposed to be its members – to stage a sit-in in order to become members.
Journalists from the newly-established Al Badeel staged a sit-in earlier this year in protest at the Syndicate’s refusal to grant them membership on the grounds that journalists must have been working for at least one year before they can apply for membership. Al Badeel journalists argue that the law in fact only requires them to have worked for six months.
The government demonstrated its commitment to containing media criticism in February of this year when the Minister of Information proposed a charter on satellite broadcasting adopted by Arab information ministers that was widely criticised by rights groups as a thinly disguised attempt to control dissent.
Last year, a March 2007 amendment to article 179 of the Constitution concerning counter-terrorism provisions drew heavy fire from critics.
The amendment paves the way for the introduction of a counter-terrorism law to replace the emergency law (due for renewal this month) and allows suspects to be arrested, interrogated and monitored without judicial supervision.
Critics warn of the risk of these powers being used to subvert the press.
“Article 179 gives the authorities the right to widen the definition of t
errorism, while article 48 of the constitution provides that publications may be censored for the purposes of national security, Shady Abdel Karim, a lawyer and director of the Alhak NGO explained.
“Used in conjunction, these two articles may be applied in order to control the press.
Kassem believes that press freedom deteriorated after the US administration stopped applying pressure.
“Between 1993 and 2003 Mubarak was criticized twice in the press and both times at a heavy cost. That changed with pushing from the Bush administration, he said.
“There’s definitely been a deterioration since Mubarak realized that the Americans have backed-off.
He suggests that the state-controlled press is slowly becoming obsolete because the independent press and the internet have rendered it an anomaly by destroying its hold on information.
Kassem suggests that “it’s a question of time when they pull the plug on the state press.
“In five years or so I can see the situation of the Egyptian press improving, he says.
“Mubarak will be gone, Kassem speculated, “and there will be more competition – which is always healthy. In addition, the state press will be out of the way. To take a market share by subsidising the price of newspapers is one of the worst forms of censorship.