The sentencing of Al-Jazeera journalist Huwaida Taha Mitwalli to six months in prison for her reporting on torture in Egypt makes a mockery of World Press Freedom Day, Human Rights Watch said today.
Mitwalli, an Egyptian national who also reports for the London-based daily Quds al-Arabi, was convicted by a Cairo criminal court on May 2 for “possessing and giving false pictures about the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country” in connection with an Al-Jazeera documentary about torture in Egypt. The court also fined her 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,518).
“Egypt’s sorry record of torture is only made worse by its practice of punishing journalists who dare to speak about it,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.
On January 8, 2007, security officers at Cairo airport prevented Mitwalli from leaving the country and confiscated her videotapes and computer as she tried to board a flight to Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is headquartered. On January 12 she received a summons to appear at the Supreme State Security Court the following day, where security officials held her overnight for questioning and then released her on bail. Mitwalli then returned to Qatar, where she remains pending appeal of her conviction.
“Mitwalli’s prosecution is the latest in a recent series of egregious government violations of freedom of expression,” said Stork.
On April 14, 2007, security officers arrested television journalist and blogger `Abd al-Monim Mahmud at Cairo airport as he tried to board a plane for Sudan to work on a story about human rights abuses in the Arab world for the London-based Al-Hiwar satellite channel. Mahmud, who is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had recently written in his blog about his experience of torture in 2003, and prior to his arrest he spoke out about torture in Egypt at conferences in Doha and Cairo and in interviews with journalists and human rights organizations. He is currently in Tura prison, outside Cairo, awaiting trial on charges of “membership in a banned organization.”
On March 12, 2007, the Alexandria Court of Appeals upheld the four-year prison sentence against `Abd al-Karim Nabil Sulaiman, a blogger who had criticized Islam and President Hosni Mubarak. And on March 10, secular activist and blogger Mohammad al-Sharqawi – himself a victim of police torture – returned home to find that his laptop, which he said contained an unreleased video depicting police abuse, had been stolen. Cash and other valuables in the apartment were untouched.
Human Rights Watch said that the charges against Mitwalli and other journalists underscore the urgency of reforming Egypt’s laws governing the media. Amendments in July 2006 to the Press Law left intact article 102(bis) of the Penal Code, which allows for the detention of “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest.”
“Instead of addressing the abuses journalists report, the Egyptian government has once again used laws that violate basic freedoms to silence its critics,” said Stork.
As a state party to key international and regional human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Egypt has pledged to protect the right to freedom of expression.