Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Status change explanation: Egypt’s status improved from Not Free to Partly Free in recognition of the courage of Egyptian journalists to cross “red lines” that previously restricted their work and in recognition of the greater range of viewpoints represented in the Egyptian media and blogosphere. This progress occurred in spite of the government’s ongoing—and in some cases increasing—harassment, repression, and imprisonment of journalists.
While Egyptian journalists succeeded in expanding the diversity of media coverage by pushing back the “red lines” that previously restricted their work, press freedom continued to suffer owing to the government’s repressive laws and the extralegal intimidation of journalists. The Emergency Law, the Press Law, and other provisions of the penal code circumscribe the press, despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom. Even after the 2006 amendments to the Press Law, dissemination of “false news,” criticism of the president and foreign leaders, and publication of material that constitutes “an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals” or an “outrage of the reputation of families” remain criminal offenses that are prosecuted opportunistically by the authorities. Penalties include fines ranging from EGP5,000 to EGP20,000 (US$900 to US$3,600) for press infractions and up to five years’ imprisonment for criticizing a foreign head of state or the president. Journalists have few professional protections and remain vulnerable to prosecution under these laws.
A series of high-profile legal cases against independent and opposition journalists over the course of the year served to threaten and penalize the media for taking journalistic and editorial risks. In January, security officers detained Al-Jazeera journalist Huwaida Taha Mitwalli, who also writes for the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, and charged her with “possessing and giving false pictures about the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country”; authorities also confiscated her videotapes and computer in connection with a documentary she was making about torture in Egypt. On May 2, a Cairo criminal court sentenced her to six months in prison for spreading false news that could “harm the national interest” and fined her EGP20,000 (US$3,600) for “possessing TV tapes, with the aim of distributing and broadcasting them, which included events contrary to reality about torture in Egypt, and which are likely to damage the reputation of the country abroad.” At year’s end, she was free pending appeal. In September, a state security prosecutor brought charges against Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the feisty independent daily Al-Dustur, for publishing reports about President Hosni Mubarak’s health “that were likely to harm the public interest.” According to a member of the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate, this was the first time a member of the media had been summoned before an emergency court, which does not allow appeals and rarely grants acquittals. In a separate case in September, a Cairo court sentenced Eissa and three other editors—‘Adil Hamuda (Al-Fagr), Wael al-Ibrashi (Sawt al-Umma), and ‘Abd al-Halim Qandil (Al-Karama)—to one year in prison and imposed a fine of EGP20,000 (US$3,600) for publishing “with malicious intent, false news, statements, or rumors likely to disturb public order,” based on their criticism of President Mubarak’s stance on Hezbollah and of senior members of the ruling National Democratic Party, including the president’s son Gamal. Also in September, a court sentenced three editors—Anwar al-Hawari, Mahmoud Ghalab, and Amir Salem—of the opposition Wafd party’s eponymous newspaper to two years in prison for publishing false news “liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage the public interest.” At year’s end, they were free pending appeal.
Although there are more than 500 newspapers, magazines, journals, and other periodicals in Egypt, this apparent diversity disguises the government’s role as a media owner and sponsor. The government is a partial owner of Egypt’s three largest newspapers, whose editors are appointed by the president. In recent years, the Shura Council—one-third of whose members are appointed by the president—has granted newspaper publication licenses to opposition parties and private investors. The Ministry of Information controls the content of state-owned broadcast media, and privately owned domestic broadcasters are not allowed to air news bulletins but must focus instead on music and entertainment. Nevertheless, a new crop of independent newspapers and political talk shows broach topics that would have been unthinkable five years ago. The government did not block foreign satellite channels and permitted the establishment of locally based private satellite television stations.
Thanks in large part to government efforts to aggressively promote internet use, the number of Egyptians with access to this medium has more than quadrupled over the past several years, and an estimated 10 percent of the population used the internet in 2007. The government does not engage in widespread online censorship but occasionally blocks Islamist and secular opposition websites. In one case in May 2007, an appeals court judge being sued for plagiarism by several human rights groups asked the Administrative Judiciary Court to shut down up to 50 news and human rights–oriented websites, arguing that they tarnished the country’s reputation. In December, however, the higher court rejected the request. In February, Alexandrian blogger Abd al-Karim Nabil Sulaiman, better known by his pen name, Karim Amer, became the first Egyptian blogger to be imprisoned for his writings. He is currently serving a four-year prison sentence for “insulting Islam” and “insulting the president.” In April, security agents detained Abd al-Moneim Mahmud, a blogger and journalist for the London-based Al-Hiwar satellite television station, as he was boarding a plane for Sudan to work on a documentary about human rights in the Arab world. According to Mahmud’s lawyers, Egypt’s domestic intelligence service cited his criticism of torture in Egypt on his blog, at conferences in Doha and Cairo, and in conversations with the press and international human rights groups as justification for his arrest. He was jailed for several weeks on charges of arming students against the government before a prosecutor dropped the charges as groundless.