Media censorship, intimidation and prosecution of journalists continued to be business as usual in 2008, the year in which the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) placed Egypt seven in its list of the world’s top 10 backsliders on press freedom.
In September, Al-Dostour editor Ibrahim Eissa’s six-month prison sentence, reduced to 2-months on appeal, was met with outrage.
The court found that articles which suggested that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is in ill-health constituted “false information of a nature to disturb public order or security.
The case was condemned as political score-settling by the regime with its long-time, and outspoken critic.
The government having flexed its muscles, (or maybe after the realization that having a high-profile editor in prison is more trouble than it’s worth) Mubarak pardoned Eissa in a move reportedly mediated by Journalists’ Syndicate head Makram Mohamed Ahmed.
Eissa was awarded the 2008 Gebran Tueni Award for journalism by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) in December, but little publicity has been given to another Al-Dostour journalist, 20 year-old Hossam El-Wakeel.
El-Wakeel was arrested at the end of September while covering clashes between the police and the families of pupils at an Alexandrian school.
El-Wakeel was detained for two months before obtaining a court release order in mid-December.
February 2008 marked the first anniversary of the imprisonment of Kareem Amer, the first Egyptian blogger to be sentenced for his online writing. Amer’s jailing foresaw the trend described by CPJ in its annual census of journalists in prison, issued this month.
For the first time in CPJ’s prison census, online journalists represented the largest category (45 percent) of imprisoned media workers. CPJ attributes this to the “rising influence of online reporting and commentary.
The case of Tamer Mabrouk illustrates the way in which bloggers and citizen journalists have carved out a space for them in the media by circumventing repressive press laws.
Mabrouk exposed the Trust Chemical company’s dumping of chemicals into Port Said’s Manzallah Lake and reported harsh working conditions inside the company.
His report was picked up by the state-run daily Al-Masaa which ran the story under the headline “the Port Said death factory. Trust Chemical responded by suing Mabrouk for defamation.
The Egyptian authorities are acutely aware of the influence of online reporting, judging by the draft law on audio-visual transmission leaked by independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm in July.
In addition to regulating the transmission of satellite stations, the draft law imposes prison sentences for ordinary media-users who violate its provisions.
The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) suggested in a position paper that the “Kafkaesque draft law spells the end of he “era of torture clips and corruption documentation videos – a reference to mobile phone videos posted on the Internet, which showed the abuse and torture of individuals at the hands of the Egyptian police.
ANHRI director Gamal Eid said during a seminar this month on the detention of bloggers that 10 prisoners of conscience are currently imprisoned in Egyptian jails, or have disappeared inside the state security investigations system.
While bloggers featured on the list, not all were arrested for online writing. All however, are being detained for peacefully expressing political opinion. Mosaad Abu Fagr, a writer who campaigns for the rights of Sinai’s Bedouin community, was arrested in December 2007 and remains imprisoned despite both deteriorating health and several release orders.
The disappearance of Mohamed Adel highlights the Egyptian authorities’ sensitivity to the issue of Gaza since the Rafah Crossing was breached in January: Adel is thought to have been detained because of photographs showing him with Hamas leaders in Gaza.
Freedom of expression came under attack from private individuals as well as the authorities in what is known as Hesba or politically motivated cases. Sociologist and government critic Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Al-Dostour editor Eissa were among the targets of Hesba cases.
Judge Abdel-Fattah Murad started the latest battle in his war against activists’ and pro-human rights websites in August when he pressed defamation charges against ANHRI director Gamal Eid and owners of the Manalaa.net website, Manal Hassan and Alaa Abd El-Fattah,
Murad alleges that the defamation occurred in April 2007 during a website-blocking case brought by the judge against 51 sites, which the Administrative Court rejected.
Aside from prosecuting journalists, publishing bans were also enforced in two high-profile cases. The gagging order on the kidnapping of a group of foreign tourists in September was issued several days after the event, by which time the local and international media had widely reported the incident.
The media blackout of the Suzanne Tamim murder trial imposed by judge Al-Mohammedi Qunsua has resulted in the prosecution of journalists from independent dailies Al-Masry Al-Youm and El-Wafd for breaching the ban.
No action was taken in complaints submitted against journalists from state-controlled dailies Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhuria who allegedly also breached the ban.
In August the state-run Al-Ahram printing house allegedly received orders not to print the second edition of independent daily El-Badeel because of the tone of its coverage of the Shoura Council fire.