Freedom of the Press
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Press freedom in Egypt did not improve in 2008. The Emergency Law, the Press Law, and provisions of the penal code circumscribe the media, despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom. Even after amendments to the Press Law in 2006, 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 EGP 5,000 to EGP 20,000 (US$900 to US$3,600) for press infractions and up to five years in prison for criticizing the president or a foreign head of state. Journalists have few professional protections and remain vulnerable to prosecution under these laws. Egyptian reporters continued to test the boundaries of acceptable coverage but were confronted by arrests, lawsuits, and state-sponsored assaults.
In May, the parliament agreed to extend the Emergency Law enacted after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. It gives the president the authority to suspend basic freedoms, enables security forces to detain people for prolonged periods without trial, and permits the censorship and closure of newspapers in the name of national security. In June, the government introduced a new broadcasting bill that would assign penalties ranging from one month to three years in prison for “attacking social peace, national unity, public order and society’s values.” The bill also provides for the creation of a national broadcasting regulatory agency headed by Information Ministry officials and members of the state security services. The agency would be empowered to withdraw news outlets’ licenses arbitrarily.
In February, the Arab League’s council of information ministers adopted a pan-Arab regulatory framework for satellite television stations introduced by Egyptian information minister Anas al-Fiqi. The framework targets independent stations that have been airing criticism of Arab governments by forbidding content that would have a “negative influence on social peace and national unity and public order and decency.” The document calls on Arab League member states to take “necessary legislative measures to deal with violations,” steps which can include confiscation of broadcast equipment and the withdrawal of licenses.
In keeping with this new framework, the government targeted a number of Egyptian broadcast outlets in 2008. In April, police raided the offices of the Cairo News Company (CNC), which provides technical support to broadcasters, and confiscated its transmission equipment. The raid came after the Qatar-based satellite station Al-Jazeera broadcast CNC footage of social unrest in the Egyptian city of Mahalla al-Kobra, including scenes of protesters tearing down posters of President Hosni Mubarak. On October 26, the Court of Misdemeanors fined Nader Gohar, CNC’s owner and director, EGP 50,000 for possession of satellite broadcast equipment and another EGP 100,000 for operating an “unauthorized telecommunication network.” The court also ordered the confiscation of all CNC equipment found during a search of the company’s headquarters. Also in April, the government-owned satellite transmission company, Nilesat, stopped carrying Al-Hiwar television. The station featured talk shows such as People’s Rights, which focused on human rights activists who had been harassed or persecuted by Arab governments, and Egyptian Papers, which hosted prominent critics of the Egyptian government. In a similar case, police raided the Cairo office of Iran’s state-owned Al-Alam television station in July and confiscated broadcast equipment. The raid coincided with the release of an Iranian film depicting the assassination of former president Sadat in a positive light. On August 28, the government ordered the Cairo Video Sat production company to cancel the recording of two programs about youth and politics for Al-Hurra, an Arabic-language television station funded by the U.S. government.
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. The Supreme Press Council revoked the licenses of at least 14 news publications, and in February a Cairo appellate court upheld the conviction of an Al-Jazeera journalist, Howayda Taha Matwali, for harming Egypt’s reputation through her work on a documentary about torture. The court struck down her six-month prison sentence, but left intact a fine of EGP 20,000. In March, a Cairo court sentenced Ibrahim Issa, editor of Al-Dustur newspaper, to six months in jail on charges of “publishing false information and rumors” about Mubarak’s health. However, he was pardoned by the president in October. Also that month, a criminal court in Giza ordered El-Fegr editor Adel Hammouda and writer Mohammed al-Baz to pay fines of EGP 80,000 each for defaming cleric Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, after their newspaper published a satirical article claiming that Tantawi was planning to visit the Vatican. In November, a Cairo court banned media coverage of the murder trial of Hisham Talaat Moustafa, an Egyptian billionaire accused of ordering the murder of his reputed mistress, Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim. Some news outlets defied the ban, and their reporters were briefly detained as a result.
In addition to legal and regulatory harassment, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information reported an increase in physical assaults and abductions of journalists in 2008. In one high-profile case, Rahmaniya police arrested Kamal Murad, a journalist for El-Fegr newspaper, for reportedly taking photographs of police beating farmers in Ezbat Mohram to coerce them into signing leases with a local businessman. The officers allegedly beat Murad and seized his notes and mobile-telephone memory card.
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. A majority of print outlets are still in the hands of the state, including Egypt’s three largest newspapers, Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, and Al-Gomhorya, whose editors are appointed by the president. On June 8, the Higher Press Council gave licenses to five privately owned newspapers. However, strict regulations still limit the freedom of the independent media to operate. All terrestrial television broadcasters—two national and six regional—are owned and operated by the government. There are, however, several privately owned satellite and pan-Arab stations that attract wide viewership. While the state radio monopoly ended in 2003, the handful of private radio stations operating in the country concentrate on music and entertainment programming.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. The internet was accessed by 12.9 percent of the population in 2008. Despite this encouragement, the government continued to block Islamist and secular opposition websites, and arrests of bloggers who criticized the government were not uncommon. In August, the government imposed a new measure requiring internet cafes to retain the personal information of customers, including their names, e-mail addresses, and telephone numbers. Reflecting the rising influence of online reporting and commentary, more internet journalists suffered government harassment. Esraa Abdel Fattah, a young blogger who with her friends created the Facebook group “6 April: A Nationwide Strike,” calling for peaceful strikes across the country to protest rising food prices, was arrested along with fellow bloggers on the day of the planned strike. On July 21, Mohamed Refaat, editor of the blog Matabbat, was arrested and charged with “joining a banned group” (the Muslim Brotherhood) and “inciting to strike on the occasion of 23 July.” He was released in September. Christian blogger Hani Nazeer was arrested under the Emergency Law on October 3 after he criticized the novel Azazil, a book perceived by many in Egypt’s Christian minority as an attack on their faith.