Egypt's courts have a field day with the media

Last October 11 saw the Egyptian courts flooded with no less than three cases involving four editors in chief answering to a variety of charges from defamation to sedition, earning the date the dubious title of "Egyptian journalists trial day."
al azhar
A worrying trend are the increasingly hefty fines, which can result in prison time for journalists unable to pay them. R.R.

BEIRUT, October 15, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The first in the docket on October 11 was Abdel Halim Qandil, editor in chief of the independent daily Sawt Al-Omma (Voice of Nation), who was being sued by Ahmad Izz, a businessman and frontbencher for the ruling National Party. 

The second case was the trial of four editors in chief of various independent newspapers for charges of insulting the President. The third was a case brought by the Sheikh Al-Azhar against Adel Hammouda, editor in chief of Al-Fajr, and one of its editors Muhammad Baz.

The Giza penal court in Cairo fined Hammouda and Al-Baz 80,000 EP or about $14,500. The charges were defamation against Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s leading Islamic authority, Al-Azhar.

The court also ordered Hammouda and Baz to pay 5,000 EP or $900 to Al-Azhar, but the court cleared them of insulting the Azhar council.

The case of the Sheikh Al-Azhar

The General Prosecution had put the two journalists on trial for a March article by Al-Baz called "The Grand Vatican Sheikh," in which Sheikh Tantawy was depicted as the Vatican pope dressed in a robe with a large cross around his neck in a photo montage accompanying the article.

Hammouda's and Baz's defense argued that holding the editor in chief legally responsible for anything published in the newspaper is unconstitutional, clarifying that Egypt has endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19 of which states that freedom of expression and thought are guaranteed, and all signed states are obliged to take all necessary measures to ensure freedom of thought and expression.

On the same day, another court heard an appeal by four editors in chief of independent newspapers against a September 2007 ruling, which sentenced them to one year in prison for insulting president Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal. Publishing "false" news about leading members of the ruling National Party is illegal according to the Egyptian press code.

The Al-Ajouza felonies court sentenced the editors in chief of Al-Dostour, Ibrahim Issa; Al-Fajr's Adel Hammouda; Sawt Al-Omma's Wael Al-Abrashi and the former editor in chief of Al-Karamah, Abdel Halim Qandil; to one year in prison after a lawyer sued the four journalists accusing them of insulting the president and leaders of the National Party.

[Editor's note: In a separate case, Ibrahim Issa was pardoned by president Mubarak after he was sentenced to a two-month prison sentence last month.]

Lawyer and member of the ruling National Party Ibrahim Yasin, who sued the editors in chief, claimed that material published by these newspapers fell under insulting and defamation of the president, which is punishable by Egyptian law.

Defense lawyers for Hammouda and Baz said their aim was to convince Sheikh Al-Azhar not to visit the Vatican, following an invitation, in protest to Pope Benedicts' stances on Islam, especially in his lecture delivered at the German university of Regensburg in September 2006.

Sheik Al-Azhar, Dr. Muhammad Seid Tantawi, told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabs that he welcomed the Egyptian judiciary's decision to fine Hammouda and Baz 80,000 EP each.

Tantawi said, "I totally respect the decision of the court in the case... I respect the ruling and do not comment on it because the judiciary pronounced its just rule."

Fine = prison

Al Fajr journalist Muhammad Baz told Al-Qabs that there is a positive side to this ruling, in that the court separated the accused journalists from the media outlet itself. Subsequently, a fine imposed on an individual journalist can no longer bring down the media publication.

But for the journalists themselves fines like these can have huge consequences.

In a reaction to the ruling, Jamal Abdel Rahim, a member of the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate, which tried to mediate between Sheikh Al-Azhar and the journalists, said the dangerous thing was the large amount of the fine – the biggest in the history of media cases before the Egyptian courts. Even if Hammouda and Baz (or Al Fajr) are able to pay the 160,000 EP (roughly $30,000) immediately, other newspapers and journalists cannot pay such fines.

"This is why I demand that fines are made compatible with journalists' wages. Many see the massive fines as another way for imprisonment, given that a failure to pay the fine could lead to a prison sentence," Abdel Rahim said.

Still, Baz saw another silver lining in the fact that the court made a distinction between the person of Sheikh Muhammad Said Tantawi and the Al-Azhar Council as a larger entity.

"We were cleared of insulting the Council, and this is the truth. Our dispute is with Muhammad Said Tantawi, and not the Azhar establishment," Baz said.

But he added, "I believe the fine was totally exaggerated. What would a journalist who cannot afford such fines do? He will surely go to prison; the fine is in fact another side of the imprisonment coin."