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Restrictions On Press Freedom In Egypt: The Pace Quickens

A letter to President Hosni Mubarak

The letter charges that the pattern of censorship, banning of newspapers, and criminal prosecution of journalists thus far in 1998 has created a formidable atmosphere of intimidation for the media, and calls on President Mubarak to reverse the sharp deterioration in freedom of the press.

In a report on Egypt published by our organization in December 1997, we noted that various actions of authorities in 1997 had compromised press freedom for Egyptian and foreign newspapers. These measures included criminal prosecution of journalists for allegedly libelous reports about corrupt practices of government officials or their relatives; blanket bans on press coverage of various newsworthy issues; suspension of the publication of three issues of the biweekly opposition newspaper al-Sh'ab for defying one of these bans; and prohibition of the distribution of an issue of the Arabic daily al-Hayat because a front-page story about a border dispute between Egypt and Sudan was judged biased. According to the Cairo-based Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA), there are at least twenty-two court cases or investigations by prosecutors in progress, involving thirty-four journalists who face imprisonment. Three of the journalists -- publisher and editor Mustafa Bakri, journalist and former editor Mahmoud Bakri, and journalist Amr Nasif -- are appealing court rulings that imposed one-year prison sentences, and Gamal Fahmy is appealing a three-month prison sentence.

In the context of these developments, Human Rights Watch is alarmed that the pressure on independent journalists has intensified in 1998. Recent comments byYour Excellency appeared to signal the intention of the government to continue policies that penalize and intimidate the independent press. We note with concern Your Excellency's complaint on March 7 about "the unruliness of the press," andyour serious allegations that some journalists "are destroying our country" and that some newspapers "harm the homeland's security." Your remarks also indicated that unfavorable press coverage of certain foreign governments was not welcome. You asserted that "some non-Egyptian personalities have infiltrated the Egyptian press to attack their countries' rulers," and that "someone has contacted a cheap newspaper and paid it a monthly fee in order to curse Saudi Arabia." On March 8, Ahmed Harak, the first deputy of the Higher Press Council, reinforced the message that critical reporting about Saudi Arabia was a particularly sensitive issue.

In the view of Human Rights Watch, the following actions since the beginning of the year raise concerns about the intent of your government to suppress the dissemination of a broad range of news, information, and opinions by the independent press in Egypt:

* On March 21, censors informed the fortnightly English-language Cairo Times of the banning of its March 19 issue from distribution in Egypt because of the subject matter of several articles. One was an interview with author Khalil Abdel Kerim, whose two books were seized by police at a publishing house on January 14, on the order of the higher state security prosecutor, because religious authorities at the Islamic Research Academy of al-Azhar disapproved of their content. The censor also objected to a review of the English translation of al-Balad al-Okhra (The Other Place), a book about life in Saudi Arabia written by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid and published by the American University in Cairo Press. "The censors told me it was insulting to another Arab country," publisher Hisham Kassem said. Another entry found objectionable was a round-up of commentary from Arabic-language newspapers that criticized the ongoing clamp down on the press. The Cairo Times, which is licensed abroad, is subject to pre-publication censorship as a foreign publication. CHRLA characterized the harassment of the newspaper as "an additional indicator of the state trend toward limiting the permitted margins of the freedom of the press in Egypt."

The Cairo Times, and at least thirty-eight other small-circulation periodicals that are licensed abroad, experienced another setback on March 31 when, without any warning, the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones banned by administrative decree the printing of all newspapers and magazines in the zones. These investment zones had been the only places in Egypt where "off-shore" publications could be printed without needing to obtain a separate printing license from authorities. The abrupt implementation of the decree penalized publishers whose next issues were about to be printed. It also disrupted the business operations of printing houses located in the zones, and forced publishers, over the short term at least, to find printers outside Egypt. Fears were also raised that the measure would subject these independent publications to additional forms of bureaucratic harassment or control.

* On March 16, an appeals court upheld the 1996 libel conviction of Gamal Fahmy, clearing the way for the imposition of a six-month prison sentence with hard labor, which the journalist is currently serving in Tora Mazra' prison. Fahmy had been prosecuted for an article that

he had written in al-Arabi newspaper in which he criticized the views of writer Tharwat Abaza about the origins of the 1956 Suez crisis and described Abaza's father as a British symphathizer. After the appeal court's ruling, Fahmy said that punishments against journalists were expanding "in a way that would lead you to give up writing altogether. There are no other freedoms in Egypt except for freedom of expression. If they take that away, then what's left?" The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) commented on the court's decision in a statement issued on March 19. It said that imposing prison sentences on journalists "contradicts international charters which enshrine the freedom of journalists and give them protection to carry out their work," and warned of "the repercussions of this negative climate on the country's already limited democracy."

* On March 4, the weekly newspaper of the Misr al-Fatah (Young Egypt) political party was targeted, according to a report that day by Agence France-Presse. The prosecutor general brought libel charges against three of the paper's officials -- president Ahmad Ezzeddin Suleiman, director general Taher Mahmoud Taher, and editor-in-chief Mukhtar Mahmoud Abdel Al -- for articles published in the February 19 edition that accused Finance Minister Moheidin el-Gharib of "wasting public funds and corruption," prosecutors said.

* On February 26, the censorship office in the information ministry informed al-Dustour, which is also licensed abroad, that its license to print and distribute in Egypt had been revoked. This move effectively banned the newspaper from publishing. Editor-in-chief Ibrahim Issa said that the reason provided for this extreme measure was the paper's publication on February 25 of a statement issued by the Islamic Group that leveled various unsubstantiated accusations against Coptic Christian businessmen in Egypt and threatened to kill three of them. In addition to publishing the statement, the paper cited former security officials who cast doubt on the document's authenticity. Censors did not object to the publication of the material; authorities acted only after the issue of the newspaper had been published. Information Minister Safwat Sherif reportedly defended the action by citing the law governing foreign publications, which he said prohibits "distribution in Egypt of publications which slur religions, spread subversive ideas, or propagate the tracts of terrorist groups." The Islamic Group since 1992 has claimed responsibility for acts of violence by its armed wing that have killed and injured hundreds of Egyptian civilians, foreigners, and police and security forces.

* On February 24, an appeals court upheld the 1997 libel conviction of Magdi Hussein, editor-in-chief of al-Sha'b, and journalist Muhamed Helmi, and ordered that they serve sentences of one year in prison with hard labor and pay fines for damages to Alaa al-Alfi, the son of former interior minister Hassan al-Alfi. The case stemmed from articles published in al-Sha'b in 1996, accusing the younger Mr. al-Alfi of influence-peddling in his business dealings in Egypt. The newspaper has been repeatedly targeted by authorities for its investigative reporting, particularly on issues related to corruption. Mr. Hussein and Mr. Helmi are currently imprisoned in Tora Mazra' prison.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about recent revisions in the law that grant to the executive branch of government the authority to license new newspapers and other media in Egypt. On January 17, 1998, parliament hurriedly passed amendments to the companies law, Law No. 159

of 1981. Your Excellency ratified the amendments on January 23, despite an appeal from the journalists syndicate on January 19. The legislation transferred to the cabinet of ministers the power to approve the establishment of new newspapers, authority which previously rested with the Higher Press Council, itself only a quasi-independent body. According to CHRLA, there are about thirty cases before the courts challenging the Higher Press Council's denial of licenses to new publications.

There was vocal criticism of the circumstances under which these amendments were presented to the parliament, and the lack of consultation or substantive debate. "The People's Assembly...had not been prepared for the new law and before most deputies realized what was happening, the law had been passed," the weekly Middle East Times reported. "The people...find the laws before the People's Assembly without any preparation or prior notice," the daily al-Wafd wrote in an editorial on January 19. "Just as the law was cooked up in the government's kitchen in a matter of hours, it was presented to and passed by the parliament in two hours, while dozens of other laws that affect the people's lives and interests have been locked in the government's drawers for years. The government passes the laws that it wants, and it does so with the same secrecy we have come to expect of it."

In at least one case, the amended companies law appears to have been applied retroactively to a new independent weekly newspaper, al-Hadaf, which had received a license to publish from the Higher Press Council on June 23, 1997. After the paper was licensed, it secured the various approvals for corporate status and presented the necessary documents to the relevant authorities on December 23, 1997. The authorities, however, halted the remaining final stages of the registration process, leaving the newspaper in legal limbo and unable to publish. Requests by the paper's founders for an official written explanation were refused. Following the passage of the amendments to the companies law on January 23, al-Hadaf was informed that it was now required to obtain a license from the council of ministers, despite the fact that the paper had obtained a license in 1997 under the law that was in force at the time. The founders of the newspaper filed a lawsuit in administrative court, challenging the arbitrary suspension of the corporate registration process and the retroactive application of the revised companies law. As of this writing, the court case is continuing.

Human Rights Watch takes the position that freedom of the press must include the freedom to report news, investigate issues of public concern, and publish a diversity of information and views. We also believe that the power to license newspapers and other publications should be vested in an agency or authority that is independent of direct interference by the executive branch of government. The licensing process should be effectively insulated from political pressure, governed by standards that are politically neutral and transparent, and subject to review by an independent judiciary. We respectfully urge Your Excellency to take immediate action to reverse the sharp deterioration of press freedom in Egypt, and ensure that government policies are in conformity with the guarantees

of freedom of expression in the Egyptian constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt has ratified. Journalists should be permitted to work freely, and publishers should be allowed to operate, without the threat of state harassment or the risk of imprisonment. We will continue to monitor closely future developments. We thank you in advance for your attention to this important matter, and look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience.


/original signed/

Kenneth Roth Executive Director
Human Rights Watch


His Excellency Safwat al-Sherif, Minister of Information
His Excellency Ahmed Maher El Sayed, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Washington, D.C.
His Excellency Dr. Nabil Elaraby, Permanent Mission of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the United Nations
His Excellency Adel Elgazzar, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, London
His Excellency Raouf Saad, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Brussels
His Excellency Hamdy Nada, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Ottawa

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