A victory for Egypt’s private press in the courts

The Egyptian administrative court reversed a government decision to monitor financial and administrative records of privately owned newspapers. Press advocates in Egypt say it’s a victory for the free press, but the verdict is still out as to whether the government will press the case further.
Amro al-Laythi, editor-in-chief of Al-Khamis. R.R.

CAIRO, December 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) - In an historic ruling for independent media in Egypt this week, the country’s Administrative Court annulled a government decision to monitor the financial and administrative records of private newspapers.

Amro al-Laythi, editor-in-chief of Al-Khamis (Thursday) daily, had appealed an earlier court decision by Egypt’s Central Auditing Agency (CAA) to conduct audits of this kind on the independent press.

In the appeal, Al-Laythi named both Egyptian prime minister Ahmad Nazif and CAA head Gamal El-Malt as defendants in the case.

Administrative Court head, Mohammad Ahmad Attiya, ruled that freedom of expression is protected by the constitution and shouldn’t be chained or hampered by any law.

Newspaper editors throughout Egypt welcomed the court decision, calling it a victory for the free press.

Meanwhile, judge Attiya referred Article 33 of the Press Regulatory Law to the Supreme Constitutional Court to decide on the laws’ constitutionality.

According to legal sources, Article 33 gives the CAA the right to monitor private newspapers, but one rights group spokesman, Hamdy El-Assiouty from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) told Egypt’s Daily News, “Article 33 now has an unconstitutional tint, the ruling has cast doubt on it because these are private newspapers, not party papers, so they aren’t financed by any government bodies.”

“You have a press law that monitors these things, so why should the CAA get involved?”

Court ruling was a no brainer

Clearly happy with the decision, Al-Laythi told reporters that the government’s decision to look at Al-Khamis’ books was both an attempt to muzzle free speech and a means of bringing private business practices under state control.

“I went to CAA head (Gamal El-Malt) to present Al-Khamis’ budget. Mostapha Bakri, editor-of-chief of al-Ousbou (the week) newspaper was my witness. When I demanded to file a suit, he welcomed my decision saying ‘I promise I wont appeal if you win.’ I took that to mean that our budget was beyond reproach.”

Khaled al-Balshi, editor-in-chief of Al-Badeel (the alternative) told MENASSAT that the CAA exceeded its powers when attempting to treat privately owned newspapers as public institutions, although he added that financial accountability was at times necessary.

Several editors told MENASSAT that the CAA’s original ruling was expected but not justified. “The government had its reasons for wanting to control the free press – mostly because of the government’s curiosity about foreign investors backing independent papers,” Hatem Mohran, editor-in-chief of al-Naba’ (the news) said.

But he added, “The Higher Press Council is the only institution that should have the power to audit private newspapers in the way the CAA has attempted to do."

Majdi Al-Jallad, editor-in-chief of Egypt’s most read paper Al-Masri Al-Youm (Egyptian today) said the administrative court ruling should pave the way for questioning the government’s own accountability process where state-sponsored media is concerned.

“We need to hold everybody accountable, reveal the losses and excesses of the nationalist newspapers too.”