CAIRO: Two separate appeal hearings involving journalists convicted of publishing offences continued on Saturday and Sunday, one adjourned till early July while the other till September.
On Saturday the Agouza Misdemeanours Court adjourned the appeal hearing launched by four newspaper editors until September 6, 2008 when pleadings will be made and an official copy of a witness testimony be submitted.
The case against editors Adel Hammouda, Ibrahim Eissa, Wael El-Ebrashy and Abdel Halim Qandil was brought last year by lawyer Ibrahim Rabie Abdel Rassoul, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party.
In September 2007, the editors were found guilty of publishing articles which infringed Article 188 of the Penal Code.
he article criminalizes “publishing false information of a nature to disturb public order or security and were sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of LE 20,000.
During the last court session the defense requested that a committee of three media experts be formed to examine whether articles published last year had negatively affected national stability.
During Saturday’s session professor of media at Cairo University Awatef Abdel Rahman gave testimony.
According to reports in the local press, Abdel Rahman underlined that the scope of press freedom in Egypt has widened in recent years, and attributed this to the appearance of the private (independent) press.
“The private press has created a vibrancy which Egyptian society hasn’t witnessed since the 1940s, Abdel Rahman said.
She also said that even if, in the course of trying to widen the scope of press freedom, the private press breaches the profession’s code of ethics they should not be dealt with in court.
“In trying to widen the margins of freedom some private newspapers have committed professional mistakes which conflict with journalists’ code of ethics,
“Where this happens newspapers should not be subject to criminal punishment. Rather, resort should be made to the Journalists’ Syndicate whose role is to apply the code of ethics and defend journalists’ right to express themselves and criticize.
“This right is intrinsic to journalism, which differs from every other profession in that its central role is to expose corruption, maladministration and injustice, Abdel Rahman explained.
She told the court that the Egyptian judiciary has a long history of supporting press freedom in its judgements, illustrating her case with several examples.
Responding to the prosecution claims that the articles at the center of the case are libellous against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), Abdel Rahman underlined that public figures are subject to wider scrutiny and criticism than private individuals by virtue of their office.
She also questioned the exact nature of the damage which had been caused to the NDP following the publication of the articles and the real aim behind “prosecuting journalists and silencing their voices.
“Is it to cover up the social dysfunction, maladministration and corruption which everyone is talking about, and which has been affirmed by the report of the Central Accounts Agency.and the Human Development Report issued by the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development? she asked.
“I add my voice to that of the lawyer of the Journalists’ Syndicate: this case must be withdrawn in order to protect the reputation of Egypt’s ruling regime.
“I also underline the importance of the immediate implementation of the promise made by President Mubarak during the Syndicate fourth conference [in 2005] that prison sentences for journalists would be abolished, and which unfortunately has still not been implemented four years after it was made, Abdel Rahman said.
A witness appeared on the stand in the Abbaseyya Appeals Court on Sunday, in the appeal hearing launched by Al-Dostour Editor-in-Chief Eissa against the six-month prison sentence he received for “publishing false information of a nature to disturb public order or security.
Popularly known as the “President’s health case, a court in March found in favour of the prosecution’s claims that articles published in Al-Dostour in August 2007 which alleged that President Mubarak is in ill health had had a detrimental effect on the Egyptian economy.
Head of the Journalists’ Syndicate Makram Mohamed Ahmed was questioned by judge Hazem Waguih about the nature of the articles published and whether they had breached journalistic codes of ethics.
As he gave his testimony chants in support of press freedom and Eissa could be heard outside the courtroom, where members of the April 6 movement were demonstrating.
Ahmed emphasized the duty of journalists to check facts but said that this was made difficult by a law which recognizes journalists’ right to access information but which does not put in place a mechanism to allow this to happen.
He emphasized that journalists are under no obligation to reveal their sources of information and that in fact to do so would constitute a breach of ethics.
Ahmed told the court that special rules do not surround journalists’ scrutiny of state and religious institutions – the ordinary requirement of precision applies, no different to any other type of subject.
“The problem is that the government never responds to news stories about it: I don’t know why it doesn’t, Ahmed said.
He also made reference to the “lack of trust and absence of a dialogue between the state and the opposition press which made it difficult for journalists to obtain information.
When asked whether the articles in question constituted news reporting or opinion pieces – of relevance to the nature of the Penal Code article under which Eissa was convicted – Ahmed said that they were news reports which stated that the President was suffering from a blood circulation problem which affected blood flow to the brain and consequently undermined his decision-making ability.
The court made reference to a report issued by the state-controlled Supreme Press Council which found that Al-Dostour (amongst other newspapers which carried reports about the President’s health) had infringed journalistic ethics.
Ahmed confirmed that the Council’s report had concluded that the authors of the articles had failed to check the veracity of allegations about the President’s health adequately, but emphasized that it was the duty of the Journalists’ Syndicate, rather than the courts, to hold the newspapers to account.
When defence lawyer and head of the Lawyers’ Syndicate Sameh Ashour asked Ahmed why charges had only been brought against Eissa (and not the editors of other newspapers which had carried reports about the President’s health) he was interrupted by judge Waguih who said “he can’t answer that, ask state security investigations , referring to state security officer Mohamed Barghesh who originally brought the charges against Eissa, but who has been absent from proceedings.
At this point lawyer Samir El Sheshtawy – who himself raised an unsuccessful lawsuit against Eissa, and who is accused of settling political scores in court on behalf of the NDP – interrupted to say that he had raised charges against the El Badeel newspaper.
When asked whether the articles had negatively impacted on the Egyptian economy as alleged, Ahmed said that he was unable to say.
The prosecution again alleged that following the publication of the articles between August 27 and 30, $350 million was withdrawn from the Egyptian stock exchange.
The defence reminded the court that even prosecution witnesses had rejected the possibility of the articles influencing stock market activity during earlier court sessions.
Ahmed also said that he was unable to comment on the intention behind the publication of the articles, saying “I cannot search inside Ibrahim Eissa’s conscience in order to discover his true intentions.
He told the court that he was unable to say whether the articles had violated journalistic codes of ethics, maintaining that a ruling on this required the formation of a comm
ittee of media experts. The defence seized this opportunity to request the formation of such a committee in the last hearing.
The case continues on July 7, when defence pleadings will be heard.