The press is guardedly optimistic, following the government's modest revisions to a series of restrictive articles of the penal code – collectively known as Law 93 of 1995. The law, which opposition journalists dubbed the "Press Assassination Law," was the focus of a sustained, year-long campaign by Egyptian journalists and human rights activists, who lobbied strenuously against its draconian provisions. The bill imposed lengthy prison terms together with hefty fines for journalists convicted of libel and a host of other ill-defined publications crimes.
With the new amendments, the government repealed some of the more contentious articles of Law 93, including a provision granting authorities the right to detain journalists without charge. Cases involving libel of the president can still land journalists in preventive detention.
For the most part, however, the essence of Law 93 remains intact, and journalists continue to face imprisonment and heavy fines for their writing. In effect, the government's revisions merely lessen the severity of penalties. For example, individuals charged with libel offenses face a maximum prison sentence of one year under the new amendments – a slight improvement over the three-year sentences originally mandated under Law 93. In cases where journalists face accusations of libeling public officials, offenders may receive up to two years in prison. The revisions to the law lower the ceilings on monetary penalties in some cases, but they still range as high as £E20,000 (US$6,000) for each offense.
Journalists remain vulnerable to prosecution under a host of highly interpretive charges, including "inciting hatred," "violating public morality," and "harming the national economy" – charges that carry one-to-two-year prison sentences and heavy fines. Egyptian authorities continue to use such rubrics to prosecute journalists. For example, Mustafa Bakri, the former editor in chief of the Liberal Party organ, Al-Ahrar, was charged along with his brother Mahmoud with defamation in a suit brought by former Minister of Religious Endowments Muhammad Mahgoub. Both men were covicted in November and ordered to pay a fine of £E5,000 (US$1,500) and compensation of £E10,000 (US$3,000).
When not prosecuting journalists for their writing, authorities were active in censoring a variety of local publications. Ministry of Information officials continued their harassment of the English-language weekly Middle East Times. In October, the ministry banned one of the paper's editions because of an article that commented on President Hosni Mubarak's 15 years in power, and censors forced the paper's editors to remove or alter individual articles on at least eight occasions. Another favorite target of government censors was the Arabic weekly Al-Dustour. On at least two occasions, authorities prevented the paper's distribution, without giving a reason for their actions.
Essam Refa't, Al-Ahram Al-Iqtesadi, LEGAL ACTION
Refa't, editor in chief of Al-Ahram Al-Iqtesadi, was sentenced to a fine of £E12, 000 (US$ 3, 500) and ordered to pay compensation to the chairman of the board of directors at the Ash-Shams for Housing company, a housing and construction enterprise. The chairman accused Refa't of abusing and insulting him and filed a lawsuit before the Cairo Felonies Court for an article that was published in August 1995 titled "Collapse of Share Value at Ash-Shams for Housing."
Magdi Hussein, Al-Shaab, HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
A Cairo court convicted Hussein, the editor in chief of Al-Shaab, the biweekly organ of the pro-Islamist Labor Party, of libel and sentenced him to serve one year in prison with hard labor and to pay a fine of £E15, 000 (US$4, 500) and £E501 (US$150) in compensatory damages. Hussein, who is appealing the decision, was tried under Law 93 of 1995, a controversial series of amendments to the penal code pertaining to crimes of publication. He was convicted on charges that the paper had libeled Alaa Hassan el-Alfi (the son of the interior minister, Gen. Hassan el-Alfi) by publishing an article that accused him of refusing to pay his bills at a Cairo hotel and trying to bully its managers when they demanded payment. CPJ urged President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak to order the appropriate judicial authorities to overturn Hussein's conviction on appeal and cease the prosecution of other journalists who are being tried under Law 93. And CPJ called for the repeal of Law 93, arguing that it undermines Egyptian constitutional protections for press freedom. Hussein is free pending the outcome of his appeal. On May 8, Hussein was jailed for two days for refusing to pay the fine, even though at the time his appeal was still pending. On May 28, the Cairo Appeal Court sentenced him to a one-year suspended prison term, and upheld the fine and the compensatory damages.
Mahmoud Al-Touhami, Rose al-Youssef, LEGAL ACTION
Al-Touhami, editor in chief of the weekly Rose Al-Youssef, was convicted of libel and sentenced to a one-year suspended prison sentence and a £E1, 000 (US$300) fine. He was tried under Law 93 of 1995, a controverial series of amendments to the penal code pertaining to crimes of publication.
Mahmoud al-Maraghy, Al-Arabi, LEGAL ACTION
Gamal Fahmi, Al-Arabi, LEGAL ACTION
Al-Maraghy and Fahmi, the editor in chief and a columnist, respectively, for the opposition weekly paper Al-Arabi, were each sentenced to six months in prison for "slandering a member of Parliament," and fined £E650 (US$200). Both appealed the decision and remained free pending the outcome of their appeal. The conviction cited an editorial in Al-Arabi denouncing an article written by Tharwat Abadha, an Egyptian member of Parliament, which was critical of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Ten thousand copies of the August edition of Al-Tadamun, a monthly Arabic newspaper published in Cyprus, were confiscated by Egyptian authorities because of a front-page article, titled "A Chronic Mental Illness." The article questioned the mental health of Arab leaders who cooperate with the United States and Israel. Egypt's Ministry of Information said that the article was unfit for publication because it "arbitrarily soiled [the reputation of] Arab governments."
Middle East Times, CENSORED
The Ministry of Information prohibited the Middle East Times, a Cairo-based, English-language weekly, from publishing an interview with Saudi dissident Muhammad Maasari in its Sept. 15-21 issue. It was the second time in 1996 that the newspaper was ordered by ministry officials to remove an article deemed critical of Saudi Arabia. Middle East Times replaced the interview with another article and published the issue. CPJ urged President Hosni Mubarak to end the government's censorship of the Middle East Times.
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