Egypt's independent press lives in fear of 'a new September'

Next week will see the resumption of the trial against Ibrahim Issa, editor in chief of the Egyptian daily Al-Dustour. Issa's case is part of a ruthless crackdown on Egypt's independent press.
By Medhat Hassan, Contributor
Egyptian journalists protest at the recent crackdown against the independent press. © Khaled Desouki / AFP

Is he sick or not?

The question seemed simple enough.

But the answer came in the form of dozens of arrests, accusations of plotting against the regime of president Muhammad Husni Mubarak and damaging Egypt's economy.

Next Wednesday will see the resumption of the trial against Ibrahim Issa, the editor in chief of the daily newspaper Al-Dustour.

Issa faces a possible three-year prison sentence if he is convicted on the charges of "harming the general interest and the country's stability."

Issa’s trial came about because he wrote an article in Al-Dustour in which he discussed rumors about the sickness of president Mubarak due to blood circulation failure.

According to the Egyptian authorities, Issa's article resulted in a wave of panic and pushed foreign investors to withdraw more than 350 million dollars from the Egyptian stock exchange in two days.

But Issa's trial is only one in a series of recent trials involving Egyptian journalists.

On September 13, four opposition newspaper editors, Issa among them, were already given prison sentences after they had been found guilty of "spreading false information and of reviling senior government officials". The four editors were sentenced to one year of forced labor and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian Lira.

"The recent sentences have produced a wave of anger among the journalists and the defenders of the freedom of the press in Egypt”, says Jamal Eid, executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Data.
This anger was expressed on October 7, 2007 when twenty-two independent and party newspapers decided to go on strike in protest against the September sentences.
The recent crackdown has led to fears that the relative freedom that the independent newspapers have enjoyed in Egypt in the past decade is about to come to an end.

There are many reasons to explain the success of Egypt's independent press in recent years.

For one, they are mostly financed by businessmen who - contrary to the party newspapers - expect to see a return on their investment.

And they have: the independent newspapers have been very successful in reaching wide swathes of the Egyptian population who were disappointed by the party newspapers of the mid-nineties.

Last but not least, they have provided a platform for a generation of Egyptian journalists who had hit a glass ceiling and were unable to climb the professional ladder in the existing official newspapers, such as
Al-Ahram, Al-Gomhuria and  Al-Akhbar.

But today, these newspapers are facing a serious challenge to maintain their relative independence vis-à-vis the authorities.

The Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession in Egypt recently issued a statement in which it expressed its anxiety because of the repeated government attempts to control journalists and any reports concerning the president.

The convicted journalists were among the staunchest critics of the corruption among the state officials.

And the presence of a huge number of policemen at the start of Ibrahim Issa's trial in October was seen by many as a signal of things to come.

Ibrahim Issa in his office at Al-Dustour. © Khaled Desouki / AFP

Ibrahim Issa himself sees a connection between the recent convictions and the coming hand-over of power from 79-year old president Mubarak to his son Jamal. According to Issa, in a recent interview with Radio Netherlands Worldwide, "it is an attempt to curb those journalists who do not deify the president but rather consider him to be a human being made of flesh and blood."

Issa also expressed concern at how new laws are being made "according to the needs and desires of the regime."

In fact, the doors have been opened wide for any lawyer who is a member of the ruling National party to start a lawsuit against journalists in order to preserve Egypt’s reputation, civil peace, and to protect investments.

These lawsuits, known as compensation lawsuits, have mushroomed lately.

Issa was surprised to discover that there were eight compensation lawsuits against him, on top of the original charges for which he was standing trial.

Theoretically, only the General Prosecutor can start a lawsuit based on charges of slander on behalf of the president.

Based on this, the Journalists’ Syndicate believes that lawyers belonging to the ruling National Party should not be allowed to start such lawsuits.

But this interpretation was completely disregarded in the trial of the convicted journalists.

It comes as no surprise then that the independent press in Egypt lives in constant fear that a "new September" is coming; a reference to the wave of newspaper closings in September 1981.

And as if the threat of a prison sentence wasn't enough, Egyptian journalists also run the risk of being flogged.

Imam Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the main religious authority in Egypt, recently sanctioned the punishment of anyone found to spread false rumors by eighty lashes.

When confronted by the media, Tantawi denied that his statement was directed against journalists. It was a general rule, he said, not to be applied to any specific population group.

But the threat remains.

It doesn’t look like the situation of Egyptian journalists will improve any time soon.

The reforms that were promised by the regime three years for press offences.

Some Egyptian journalists had gained hope after the White House said it was "deeply concerned" about Egypt's crackdown on press freedom.

But most observers believe the U.S. pressure on Egypt will soon ease; Mubarak's regime is much to important to Washington as a dam against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Neither are Egypt's journalists united.

Some of the government-run newspapers have portrayed the issue as a misuse of the freedom given to the journalists.

They used as evidence the claims that Issa’s reports discussing the sickness of the president caused foreign investors to withdraw $350 million in investments from Egypt.

The Rosa Al-Yousef newspaper, under the headline 'The return of insults to Egypt', criticized the independent newspapers for not abding to the journalist code of honor.

[Claims that Issa's reports damaged the economy suffered a serious blow when the sub-governor of the Central Bank testified on October 24 that he could not be certain that there was a link between the reports about Mubarak's health and the behavior of the stock market.]

Others have emphasized the need for journalists to close the ranks.

In early October, El-Gallad newspaper attempted to attract the government-run newspapers to join the cause of the independent press, arguing that the system of compensation lawsuits could also be used against journalists writing for government-run newspapers.

As a result of the recent crackdown, Egypt has already dropped to the 146th position on Reporters without Borders' 2007 Press Freedom Index, down from 133rd in 2006 (out of a total of 169 countries).

All of this leads Jamal Eid, thehum an rights activist, to be pessimistic about the future of the Egyptian independent press.

"The struggle between the government, which is opposed to the freedom of the press, and the journalists who refuse to bow down, might go on for a long time yet”.