CAIRO: During a press conference at the Journalists’ Syndicate hosting Adel Hammouda, the editor-in-chief of Al-Fajr independent newspaper, and writer Mohamed El Baz, syndicate members expressed their full support for the two journalists in the defamation case filed against them by Sheikh of Al-Azhar Sayed Tantawy.
“Between lashing journalists and putting them in jail, Al-Azhar Sheikh is doing his best to eliminate all real journalists and leaving the profession to hypocrites. We honor Al-Azhar, while Al-Azhar Sheikh demands jailing us, read the banner lining the meeting hall.
The two journalists could receive jail sentences in a lawsuit raised by Tantawy accusing them of “insulting Al-Azhar through insulting Tantawy’s person, as Hammouda stated in his speech on Thursday.The court verdict is expected next Saturday.
The bone of contention was an article by Al-Baz last month titled “The Grand Vatican Sheikh, that was deemed offensive by Tantawy. It was accompanied by a doctored image of the Sheikh dressed in the robes of the Vatican Pope, with a big cross hanging from his neck.
Tantawy demanded the arrest of both the editor and writer, and accused the newspaper of “intentionally insulting him. Tantawy has also turned down the request of a formal delegation from the syndicate headed by chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmed who had asked him to drop the case in return for the publication of a formal apology indicating that the newspaper never intended to insult him.
“As Al-Azhar has a very special place in all of our hearts, said Mohamed Abdel Quddous, chairman of the syndicate’s freedoms committee, “we [the Syndicate] asked both Tantawy and Hammouda to get together to discuss and solve the matter peacefully but were harshly turned down by Tantawy.
“We are gathered here today to demand eliminating jail sentences in publishing crimes, Abdel Quddous said, adding that they should take advantage of the recent presidential decree issued by President Hosni Mubarak pardoning Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al-Dostour from a two month jail sentence.
“It is really a big shame that in Egypt we still have laws that subject journalists to jail sentences, said Hammouda. “Eissa’s pardon was broadcast all over the world and people were amazed that there is still a country that sends journalists to jail for something they wrote.
Hammouda continued: “Currently whenever any journalist attacks a certain person, the person comes out the next day accusing the journalist of insulting the institution that the person is affiliated to.
“So now Al-Azhar Sheikh is accusing me of insulting Al-Azhar by insulting him, which I did not do. So I imagine that any journalist who attacks a member of the People’s Assembly, will be insulting the People’s Assembly as an institution and bit by bit and by time, we [journalists] will not be able to write anything about anyone.
“I am going to court on Saturday and will accept the verdict willingly because I did not do anything to be ashamed of, Hammouda concluded.
Hammouda’s speech was followed by speeches by Gamal Fahmy, a member of the Syndicate’s high board, Wael El-Ebrashy, chief editor of Sout Al-Ummah newspaper, Ibrahim Eissa, of Al-Dostour, who made a sudden appearance, Yahia Al-Alash, the Syndicate’s general secretary, and many other chief editors and media figures who expressed their deep support for Hammouda.
“I remember a few years ago when a reader, whose letter to the editor was published in one newspaper, was sentenced to six months in jail for what she wrote. When will these sentences end? Fahmy asked.
Fahmy called on Tantawy to take the President “whom he supports and emulates as a model and drop the charges against Hammouda the way the president pardoned Eissa.
“This strange and aggressive attitude of Tantawy is really strange and is by means up to the standards of an Azhar Sheikh or even a religious person, Fahmy added.
Al-Baz said “we [him and Hammouda] are not asking for a pardon because we did nothing wrong. We want to negotiate with the other party to clarify the different points of view . but we did not insult anyone.
Mohamed Mansour, the executive editor of Al-Dostour, pointed out that 33 laws in the Egyptian Penal Code allow prison sentences for journalists.
And in a fiery speech, Abdellah Al-Sinawy, chief editor of Al-Araby newspaper, said: “We want to protect Al-Azhar institution from Al-Azhar Sheikh.
He added that Tantawy has a long history of antagonism with journalists which has ruined the image of Al-Azhar.
“Tantawy is the biggest loser in this situation especially if Hammouda and Al-Baz are jailed. We will not stand still, we will protest and do all it takes to protect our fellow colleagues from imprisonment, Al-Sinawy added.
Eissa spoke highly of Hammouda whom he described as his mentor.
“The ones who introduced jail sentences for publishing offenses are the same ones who pardoned me, which is clear evidence that we are right and that journalists should not be subjected to this, Eissa said.
Last year Tantawy issued a fatwa saying that journalists who promote false information and help spread rumors should receive 80 lashes.
His religious edict came at a time when the editors of four independent newspapers – one of which was Hammouda – were on trial and threatened for spreading rumors about President Hosni Mubarak’s health.
This lawsuit along with the Al-Azhar Sheikh’s lawsuit will both be addressed in court on the same day, next Saturday.