Saturday, September 15, 2007

Rights groups accuse Egypt of curbing press freedom

Agence France Presse
Sat Sep 15, 2007

Rights groups on Saturday accused Egypt of curbing press freedom after a Cairo court this week sentenced four editors each to one year in prison for criticising the president.

"Egypt continues to imprison journalists and editors who publish stories critical of President Hosni Mubarak and other high officials," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

It called on the government to repeal laws that allow authorities to "imprison writers and editors solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression."

In comments to the weekly Al-Osboa paper published Saturday, Mubarak defended Egypt's press laws and insisted he was an advocate of press freedom, but within limits.

"I am not against criticism... but there is a difference between constructive criticism which seeks to benefit society, and destructive criticism which seeks to undermine society's achievements.... This is not criticism, this is abuse of freedom of the press," he said.

He accused some members of the press of fabricating rumours with the aim of destabilising the country and inciting chaos.

On Thursday, a Cairo court sentenced Ibrahim Eissa of the Al-Destur daily, Abdel Halim Qandil, former editor of Al-Karama, Adel Hammuda of Al-Fagr and Wael Al-Ibrashi of Sawt Al-Umma, to one year in prison and fined them each 20,000 Egyptian pounds (3,500 dollars) for "harming public interest."

The four had faced the more serious charge of "offence to the president," but in the end they were convicted of "harming the public interest... by publishing false information in bad faith" last year.

At their trial, judge Sherif Ismail said the journalists had libelled leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party, including Mubarak's son Gamal, by suggesting that the party was dictatorial.

"The trial of the four editors... is part of a continuous series of attacks against free press in Egypt," Amnesty International said in a statement, and called for a review of the press law passed in July 2006 in which publishing offences, such as insulting public officials, carry prison sentences.

"Press freedom does not exist in a country where the state can put you in prison simply for criticising the president," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"This ruling and the new charges against (Eissa) are incompatible with Egypt's constitution and its commitments under international human rights law, not to mention Egypt's current membership on the UN Human Rights Council," she said.

Eissa faces a separate trial next month accused of damaging public interest after reporting on widespread rumours of Mubarak's ill-health.

Journalists in Egypt can be sent to jail for writings that are deemed to insult the president or state institutions such as parliament or the cabinet.

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