CAIRO: Current attacks on press freedom in Egypt are both unprecedented and a prelude to greater restrictions, said Sout El-Omma Editor Wael El-Ebrashy on Saturday during a roundtable discussion on press freedom.
The discussion was organized by IFEX, a network of organizations working on freedom of expression, in partnership with local IFEX members the Human Rights Information Network, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
The discussion was aimed at examining the ways in which civil society organizations can support and protect press freedom.
Speaking during the discussion, Al-Dostour Chief Editor Ibrahim Eissa emphasized the role of the privately-owned press in casting light on issues and events ignored by state-owned publications.
“Only the private press covered the more than 500 workers’ protests which took place last year, Eissa explained in reference to publications not affiliated or run by the government.
“The private press played an important role in transmitting these events to Egypt and the world. Would the bread crisis have been exposed without the private press? he continued.
The day following the roundtable discussion, Sunday, Eissa appeared in the Abbasiya Appeals Court in an appeal hearing of his conviction on charges of publishing articles that endanger national security and stability.
The case was adjourned until June 8.
He was found guilty of the charges in March and sentenced to six months imprisonment after Al-Dostour published articles last year suggesting that President Hosni Mubarak is suffering health problems.
Eissa said that his prosecution, and that of other Egyptian journalists, reflects a greater trend in the Arab region.
“Throughout the Arab world the newspapers which opened in the Arab ‘spring’ in 2005 are now being closed or contained, he said.
Many analysts and international observes say that Arab governments, especially in Egypt, have reversed a 2005 trend of tolerating an increased margin of press freedom.
Mohamed Sayed Said of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies emphasized the crucial role that freedom of the press plays in safeguarding other rights.
“Freedom of the press is essential in order for the public to find out what is going on in the country, for their self-determination and in order for them to decide their own future, Said commented.
He said there is currently a battle going on for the future of the press seeking to “liberate it from the arbitrary control of security and state bodies.
According to El-Ebrashy, the “private press have succeeded in accomplishing three things.
“Firstly, it has shown up the ruling regime and in doing so threatened its future.
Secondly, it has publicized the culture of protest which has developed in Egypt and which the regime fears will spread.
Lastly, it has shown up individuals who are benefiting from the ruling regime, he said.
In September 2007, El-Ebrashy, together with three other editors (Adel Hamouda, Ibrahim Eissa and Abdel Halim Qandil) was found guilty of publishing articles of a nature to endanger national security and stability and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of LE 20,000.
The case was brought by lawyer Ibrahim Rabie Abdel Rassoul, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party.
El-Ebrashy emphasized that the way in which the press is controlled has changed.
“Previously when newspapers covered for example a torture case they’d get a telephone call from state security, but there weren’t the judicial cases we’re seeing now.
“The war of attrition against the press is being carried out through the trials of journalists, he said.