Analysis by Dina Abu-Ghazalah and Muhammad Shukri of BBC Monitoring on 15 October
On 13 September, an Egyptian court handed down a one-year prison sentence and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (approx 3,607 US dollars) to four editors-in-chief of independent newspapers on charges of slandering state officials.
The journalists are Wa'il al-Ibrashi of the weekly Sawt al-Ummah, Adil Hamudah of the weekly Al-Fajr, Abd-al-Halim Qandil, former editor of the weekly Al-Karamah and Ibrahim Isa of the daily Al-Dustur.
Additionally, Isa is standing trial for allegedly "spreading false news about the health of President Husni Mubarak", which, authorities claim, has scared foreign investors away and resulted in "a 350m dollar fall in the stock market".
The editor of the opposition daily al-Wafd, Anwar al-Hawwari, and two other journalists were sentenced, on 24 September 2007, to two years in prison for "harming the reputation of the judicial system". The editor of the independent daily Al-Badil, Muhammad Sayyid Sa'id, is facin! g prosecution, just like Isa, for "spreading false news" about the president's health.
These measures against journalists have drawn sharp reactions from the independent and opposition press. International human rights and press organizations as well as the USA have voiced concerns over the situation of the media in Egypt.
The prison sentences have also prompted journalists to step up calls for abrogating imprisonment penalties in publication cases.
Official, independent press trade accusations
Several independent dailies and weeklies have emerged on the Egyptian scene in recent years, attracting wide readership owing to their more daring coverage of various sensitive issues and their open criticism of the government. The official press, known for supporting government policies and decisions all the way, has apparently been unhappy with the growing influence of the independent press.
The recent publication by independent newspapers of rumours about Mubarak's health recently came as a good opportunity for the official press to attack the independent press. Abdallah Kamal, editor-in-chief of the state-owned Ruza al-Yusuf, has called for "severe punishment" of independent journalists "for disseminating rumours and inciting unrest", Shadin Shihab said in the English-language Al-Aharm Weekly on 13 September.
"Accusations flow back and forth. The state-owned press is staffed with regime lackeys, say independent journ! alists. The independent press is staffed by agents of foreign powers, is bankrolled by outlawed groups, retort their colleagues working on national papers," Shihab added.
Calls grow for abrogating prison sentences
There has been some speculation about the reasons behind the prison sentences. In an article in Al-Dustur on 19 September, Muhammad Tawfiq reflected that the four papers were "targeted" because they uncovered "many torture cases over the recent period" and "the rigging of the People's Assembly vote" and supported "the independence of the judiciary against the minister of justice, the teachers against the minister of education and the workers against the minister of manpower".
Others, however, believe that the main target was Ibrahim Isa, an outspoken critic of President Mubarak and opponent of a widely expected bequest of power by Mubarak to his son Jamal. "The verdict to imprison all these journalists in one batch is nothing but a smoke screen thrown to cover the real target which is to hunt down Ibrahim Isa," wrote Usamah Gharib in his article in Al-Misri al-Yawm on 4 October 07.
"We are facing a deliberate action that! was planned by the leaders of [the NDP's policies] committee to remove what it deems as hurdles, at the forefront of which is the free press, standing in the way of its big man and the president's son in his strenuous endeavour towards the position of presidency," Diya Rashwan said in Al-Misri Al-Yawm on 1 October.
On 25 September, Fattuh al-Shazli of Al-Wafd stressed that Egyptian journalists "are at the crossroads" and they either have "to struggle to annul the law on jailing journalists" or "put down their pens and leave the scene for the government and the regime to announce the death of the press in Egypt".
Interviewed on private Al-Yawm TV's discussion programme "Cairo Today" on 26 September, Majdi al-Jallad, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Al-Misri al-Yawm, said that journalists were now calling on President Mubarak "to cancel the imprisonment penalty in publication cases" to honour his former promise.
"War on journalism" independent paper
The independent and opposition press have slammed the government over the court verdict against the four editors-in-chief. In an article in Al-Dustur on 19 September, Tal'at al-Sadat wrote that Egyptian authorities "have given up their pursuit of criminals and thieves and have devoted themselves to declaring war on opinion holders".
Sharply reacting on the independent Al-Misriyun website on 23 September, Jamal Sultan emphasized that "if the trials of 'rebellious' journalists follow the same pattern of the recent rulings passed against the four editors-in-chief, no honest journalist will be left out of prison". Usamah Gharib of Al-Misri al-Yawm on 4 October described the crackdown against journalists as a "war on journalism".
Unity of Journalists "urgent need" opposition paper
The independent and opposition press have also called on journalists to unite to face such a crackdown. On 30 September, Abd-al-Nabi Abd-al-Bari of Al-Wafd stressed that "closing journalists' ranks has become an urgent need" in order to face "the arbitrary and unjust measures". Writing in the same vein on 3 October in Al-Wafd also, Majdi Hilmi said: "We should be united in the face of the expected aggression, which would affect our colleagues."
In a show of solidarity, 22 independent and opposition papers on 7 October suspended publication in protest at the imprisonment and trials of journalists. Websites affiliated to the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood group, the main political force in the country, such as Ikhwan Online, Amal al-Ummah and Egypt Window echoed the independent and opposition press and did not publish.
International organizations, USA criticize Egypt
The court ruling has also drawn international criticism. On 13 September, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a press release condemning the court verdict against the four editors-in-chief. "By jailing journalists merely for something they published, Egypt once again thumbs its nose at the most basic principles of a free press," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said on 15 September: "Press freedom does not exist in a country where the state can put you in prison simply for criticizing the president."
The USA has also voiced its fears over the situation of the media in Egypt in the light of the latest crackdown. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said on 24 September that the USA was "deeply concerned" over "the conviction and sentencing of several newspaper editors."
Egypt rej! ects US "unacceptable interference"
Egypt lashed out at the USA over these remarks. An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official on 25 September said that the statement issued by the White House spokesperson about the press freedom in Egypt is "unacceptable interference in Egypt's domestic affairs".
The Egyptian official noted that the US remarks reflect "unawareness of Egypt's political and legal reality". "Egypt is proud of the freedom of press it enjoys," he added.
Senior cleric sides with govt
The grand imam of Al-Azhar, which is regarded by Sunni Muslims as the most prestigious school of Islamic law, Dr Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, has recently made a fatwa that a journalist who publishes incorrect reports and spreads rumours must be whipped 80 lashes. The fatwa by Tantawi, who is widely seen as supportive of government policy, has drawn strong denunciation from the Press Association, which described the fatwa as incitement against the freedom of opinion and the press and a mixing of religion and politics.
"I will ask the prime minister, who is in charge of Al-Azhar, to fire Tantawi as he is no longer fit to issue a fatwa and hold this high position, now that he has gone too far in using religion in the service of the ruler and the government," Mustafa Bakri, an MP and editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Usbu, told Al-Jazeera.Net on 14 October.
Source: BBC Monitoring research in English 15 Oct 07