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Egyptian authorities have enforced media licensing laws to punish a company associated with broadcasting information critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said today.

The state-run Radio and Television Union brought a complaint against the Cairo News Company (CNC) on April 8, 2008, the day after Al Jazeera broadcast coverage of large anti-government street protests in the Nile Delta. CNC provides satellite transmission services and equipment to television networks operating in Egypt, including Al Jazeera, BBC, and CNN. On April 17, 35 plainclothes police officers raided CNC’s Cairo offices, confiscating its five sets of satellite transmission equipment and thereby shutting it down. Nader Gohar, CNC’s owner, has been charged with importing and owning television equipment and transmitting television broadcasts without permission. He is due to stand trial on May 26 and if convicted would face fines and at least one year in prison.

“Egypt’s closure of CNC and its prosecution of Nader Gohar are just the latest episodes in the government’s campaign to stifle freedom of the press,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “The government has already attacked several satellite news channels, apparently because it doesn’t like the news they transmit.”

Al Jazeera’s April 7 coverage of the Mahalla al-Kobra protests included footage of protesters tearing down and defacing a large poster of President Hosni Mubarak. The next day, the head of the board of the Radio and Television Union, which oversees the regulation of public and private broadcasts and transmissions, filed a complaint with Egypt’s prosecutor general, alleging that Gohar’s company had been operating without required permits.

On April 18, the day after police raided CNC’s Cairo offices, the Office of the General Prosecutor questioned Gohar and informed him that he had been charged under Law 10 of 2002 with importing, owning, and operating satellite transmission equipment without the required licenses from the National Communications Council.

Egyptian human rights lawyers and Gohar say that the closeness in time between the coverage of the protests and the complaint suggests that the charges are politically motivated.

Gohar told Human Rights Watch that CNC’s operating license expired in July 2007, after the company had been operating legally for one year. He said that when he tried to renew the license, authorities at the Ministry of Information told him he would have to wait until new regulations were issued, but that he could continue operations in the meantime. Gamal Eid, a lawyer representing Gohar and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told Human Rights Watch the charges against Gohar failed to include any specific examples of unauthorized operation.

Although CNC frequently worked with Al Jazeera, Gohar told Human Rights Watch he did not cover the Mahalla events or provide the network with equipment to cover them out of concern that it would be damaged. Gohar and his lawyers believe the authorities presumed CNC was involved because it had worked closely with Al Jazeera in the past.

According to Gohar, Ministry of Information officials told him that the Radio and Television Union was waiting for regulations to be issued in compliance with an Arab League document. “But they had said I could keep [operating] in the meantime,” he told Human Rights Watch.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia introduced the “Principles for Organizing Satellite Broadcast and Television Transmission and Reception in the Arab Region,” adopted by the Arab League in February, which calls on member states to prevent satellite television channels from broadcasting transmissions that “negatively affect social peace, national unity, public order, and public morals” or “defame leaders, or national and religious symbols [of other Arab states].”

Gohar’s first trial hearing was scheduled for May 5 at Cairo’s al-Galaa’ court, but the presiding judge, Sherif Kamel, refused to allow his lawyers to see the prosecutor’s file containing the charges and evidence against him until two days earlier, and did not allow them to copy the file. After Gohar refused to attend the opening session, Kamel postponed the trial until May 26.

“Egyptian authorities made it impossible for CNC to comply with the law, and then shut it down,” said Stork. “On top of that, they are threatening to imprison its owner in a trial marked by serious irregularities even before it begins.”

The closure of CNC has had direct and indirect chilling effects, Gohar said. “I was supposed to transmit for [US government-funded Arabic-language network] al-Hurra, they were going to do a daily morning show. But now al-Hurra is blocked because they don’t have any uplink. And the other [satellite transmission] companies are not operating at their capacity, and are refusing to feed for Al Jazeera.”

The closure of CNC follows three other satellite channels being dropped by Egypt’s state-controlled Nilesat satellite since the Arab League adopted the broadcast principles. On April 1, Nilesat abruptly stopped carrying the signal of al-Hiwar, a London-based Arabic television station, without providing any reason. Al-Hiwar’s schedule included “Peoples’ Rights,” a program on which human rights activists and victims of abuses discussed violations by Arab governments, including torture in Egypt, and “Egyptian Papers,” a program on which Ibrahim Issa and other government critics appeared. Nilesat earlier dropped the signal of al-Baraka, a television channel owned by a Saudi holding company that described itself as “the first Arab business channel based on Islamic values.” According to media reports, al-Baraka’s “paperwork was out of order.” Nilesat also dropped al-Hikma, another Islamic-oriented television station, without explanation, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Authorities also detained several bloggers and journalists who attempted to cover the protests in Mahalla on April 6.

If found guilty, Gohar faces “not less than one year in prison” and a fine of “not less than 20,000 Egyptian pounds [US$3,740],” under Article 77 of Egypt’s Penal Code.

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