Opposition media clashes with big business in Egypt

A new round of legal cases against 5 Egyptian journalists is pitting the opposition media against the interests of big business, in large part because independent newspapers have ignored the gag-rule imposed on reporting about the trial of businessman Hisham Talaat Mostafa, accused of murdering Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim in her apartment in Dubai.
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Press freedoms are at an all-time low in Egypt according to this year's Reporters Beyond Borders press freedom index.

CAIRO, February 6, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Five journalists, including the editors-in-chief of two independent Egyptian newspapers are facing jail time and stiff fines because they violated a November “ban on publishing” stories about the trial of prominent Egyptian businessman Hisham Talaat Mostafa, accused of orchestrating the murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim in her Dubai apartment last year.

The trial has reignited a debate about the ability of the Egyptian press to report on business figures that are close to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

It follows the heavily publicized case of Ibrahim Issa, editor-in-chief of the independent daily, Al-Dustor, who was jailed in September for publishing articles about the health of President Hosni Mubarak.

Strong international pressure helped convince Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to pardon Issa in October, but Issa's paper has been targeted repeatedly by the Egyptian authorities for his reporting of the Tamim-murder trial.

Mostafa has known links to the Mubarak regime and is a prominent member of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party, and one of the accused, Abbas Al-Tarabili, editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Wafed (The Delegation), told MENASSAT that the decision to send him to trial was a political one.

The trial

Al-Tarabili and Majdi al-Jalad, editor-in-chief of daily Al-Misri al-Yawm, are both being charged with three other journalists for violating the November reporting ban on the Mostafa-Tamim trial.

On Wednesday February 4, Egyptian prosecutors turned-down similar cases brought against the editors-in-chief of the three official newspapers, Al-Ahram (The Pyramids), Al-Akhbar (The News) and al-Goumhouriya (The Republic), for publishing similar reports about the Tamim trail.

“Our trials are a pinch in the ear by the government directed at the two biggest opposition newspapers in order to hinder us from following a case of interest for the Egyptian people,” Al-Tarabili told MENASSAT.

Sources close to the five indicted journalists told MENASSAT that blacking out the information about the Tamim murder trial gives the government the cover it needs to give Mostafa a lesser sentence.

Allowing the government’s version of the trial to be published in the pro-government press is “a way for the government to accuse the opposition and independent newspapers of exaggerating the facts of the trial itself,” Al-Tarabili said. 

Long-needed press reforms

The latest round of trials for the 5 accused journalists has also put Egypt’s press corps on alert – prompting many to re-issue calls for new legislation to specify the general prosecutor’s jurisdiction in such cases.

As well, the primary reporter’s union, the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, is using the new trials as a platform for demanding that Mubarak honor his promise to amend the defamation laws that make it easy to fine or imprison journalists for doing their jobs.

Before his death last November, Kamel Al-Zoheiri, a prominent journalist and then dean of the Journalists Syndicate told the press that he hoped Mubarak would honor this pledge.

Around the same time, Mubarak doubled the financial penalties allowed against journalists in defamation cases to a maximum limit of 40,000 Egyptian pounds or $7,215.

Dangerous ground for journalists

In one defamation case in September 2007, two prominent lawyers aligned with the ruling NDP took four editors-in-chief of independent papers Al-Dustor, Sawt al-Umma (The Voice of the Nation), Al-Fagr (The Dawn) and Al-Karama (The Dignity) weekly to court for allegedly publishing false “news and records” about leaders and members of the NDP and president Mubarak.

The four accused Prime Minister Ahmad Nathif and Zakaria Azmi, assistant secretary general of the NDP of governmental mismanagement and finance abuses.

But Farouq Abu Zeid, a lawyer with the Journalists Syndicate told MENASSAT that instead of jailing the four editors, they were issued heavy fines, and that as long as the four were out on appeal, Egyptian prosecutors could file new charges that could increase fines to even larger amounts.

Meanwhile, press freedoms groups say that the legal cases brought against newspapers and journalists because of their reporting on the Tamim murder trial exemplify why Egypt continues to slip in the Reporters Without Borders' press freedom ranking.

Egypt's rank went from 143 in 2007 to 156 in 2008 out of a total of 169 countries.