Egypt’s courts inundated with media trials this week

The Egyptian legal system is saturated with trials dealing with the media and issues of freedom of expression. MENASSAT's Amira Al-Tahhawi gives a blow-by-blow account of the three biggest media trials that occurred in Egypt this week.
egypt trials
Three trials in Egypt this week are testing Egypt's 1981 agreement to the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights of Freedom of Expression and Publication. R.R.

CAIRO, June 18, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The first case before the Egyptian Administrative Judicial Court on June 16 was an appeal from a case presented by Judge Abdul Fattah Mrad which was dubbed "the case of the 51 websites" in the media.

The case began in February of last year, when a group of websites launched an attack against Mrad for copying articles posted on their pages in his book about freedom of information and intellectual property rights without mentioning the sources.

Mrad in turn filed a suit before the Administrative Judicial Court against several ministers and governmental administrators as well as the 51 activist websites, news sites and blogs, claiming that they were "defamatory for the reputation of Egypt."

The court dismissed the case in December 2007 based on the fact that the defendants did nothing wrong and were simply exercising their free speech.

But the law allows plaintiffs to appeal such rulings, something legal experts say is often done to drag out court battles for extended periods of time – sometimes even years.

A report by Egypt's State Council is expected next week. The Council is responsible for cases concerning governmental institutions. Mrad and the 51 defendants are waiting for an answer to see if the appeal will be accepted.

Observers say this is the first case of its kind raised by a judge, and the verdict would allow or ban Internet users in Egypt from accessing the sites in question when, as the accused have said, their only mistake was using their constitutional right to exchange information.

At the time of publication, this trial had been postponed until November 3, 2008.

Newspapers take the stand

The second case heard this week was a defamation case against the editor-in-chief of Al-Moujaz newspaper, Yasser Barakat.

Barakat is accused of publishing material against another editor – Mostapha Bakri of the independent weekly Al-Ousbou. Barakat's paper accused Bakri of engaging in "illegal profiteering," taking advantage of his governmental positions to buy land for less than its value and then sell the land for much higher values.

Sources on the ground say that Bakri is a member of a local People's Council in Cairo, responsible for administrative decisions at a local municipal level, and he is said to have close ties with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

This week, the Administrative Court decided to postpone the trial until June 29.

In the meantime, Barakat's defense team has pointed to another case involving a group of journalists, also accused of defamation, in which the end verdict is expected to impact the Barakat vs. Bakri case.

In the other case, the defense team of the accused journalists has said that 8 points under article 19 of the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights of Freedom of Expression and Publication make the case against their clients unconstitutional. They base their claim on the fact that Egypt signed this pact in 1981 – thereby incorporating it into national law according to the Egyptian constitution.

Barakat's defense contends that what was published against Bakri in Al-Moujaz was done with the same set of conventions in mind.

This is one of 11 cases Bakri has raised against Al-Moujaz in different Egyptian courts.

Barakat's newspaper, Al-Moujaz, had gained a reputation of going after other political figures aligned with the government opposition, often using their private lives as a means of indicting them.

One such figure was Ayman Nour, head of the al-Ghad party and a former presidential candidate. Nour, who is currently in jail for issuing false documents for his party members, raised three defamation cases against the Al-Moujaz newspaper and its journalists, including one against the editor-in-chief, Yasser Barakat.

Observers say that there are other cases raised by local politicians accusing Al-Moujaz of publishing information they consider erroneous and defamatory.

Broadcast outlet in the cross-hairs

The third trial is against Cairo News Company (CNC) – a four-year old multi-operation media production company that hires its services out to more than 40 satellite channels working in Egypt.

On April 6, several satellite channels, including al-Jazeera, broadcast footage of protesters in al-Mahalla city ripping pictures of Egyptian President Hosni Moubarrak during riots against high prices.

Two days later, the CNC building was raided and five pieces of satellite broadcasting equipment were confiscated, allegedly because they had been used to broadcast the footage.

The company was accused of owning broadcasting equipment without a license.

The trial was postponed until June 30, according to court records, to allow for the CNC "to pay civil prosecution fees."

During the June 16 court appearance, CNC's defense asked the court to gain access to an official copy of the file, the testimonies and the civil prosecution claims concerning the financial and intellectual damages against the Radio and Television Union and the National Communications Council.

The defense also asked the judge to move to closing arguments.

Both of the defense's demands were rejected, and instead the court deferred to the prosecution's request to postpone the trial to June 30.

CNC has been effectively shut down because the government has refused to return the five sets of satellite transmission equipment that Egyptian security services seized in the April raid.

CNC's defense lawyer. Jamal Eid, said there is a clear contradiction in the statements of the committee that confiscated the materials and the customs employees in the airport, where the confiscated equipment entered Egypt with licenses owned by French TV network Canal 2.

Eid also said he doubts the government's ability to coordinate their investigations against CNC's equipment licensing in an efficient manner.

"When did they wake up and coordinate their activities?" he asked MENASSAT, referring to the fact that the two enforcing govrernment agencies, the Communications Ministry and the Radio and Television Union, presented a communiqué two days prior to the April 8 government raid – at the height of anti-Mubarak civil unrest in al-Mahalla – instructing the state's general prosecution to start an investigation about CNC's lincensing.

Eid suggested that the communiqué was a ploy by the government to shut down CNC because it was the one of the few companies broadcasting pictures of Egyptian citizens tearing up pictures of president Mubarak in al-Mahalla on April 6..

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information's, of which Eid is the president, also issued a statement mirroring Eid's position. "The objective of this raid is the obvious clampdown on satellite channels in their live coverage of the events Egypt is witnessing today, and aims to banning from the source," the statement read.

CNC is owned by Nader Jawhar whose brother, Mohammad Jawhar, established Video Cairo Sat in 1977 – one of the biggest companies providing services and material for television and radio stations in Egypt. The two companies are among the four biggest companies working in this field in Egypt.