7 April 1998
CPJ concerned over disregard for freedom of expression
(CPJ/IFEX) - CPJ is profoundly concerned about several serious developments
over the past two months which have contributed to a further deterioration
of press freedom in Egypt. CPJ wrote to His Excellency Muhammad Hosni
Mubarak on 25 February 1998, protesting the one-year prison sentences handed
down against journalists Magdy Hussein and Muhammad Hilel of the bi-weekly
"Al-Sha'b", who were convicted of libel and subsequently imprisoned. In a
separate letter on March 5, CPJ wrote to express concern over the Ministry
of Information's decision to cancel the publishing license of the weekly
newspaper "Al-Dustur", which forced the paper's closure. The organization
has not received replies to these letters (for information on these cases
see IFEX alerts of 2 March 1998 and 13 March 1998).
Since that time, CPJ has been disturbed to learn of new developments which
further threaten press freedom in Egypt, including the libel conviction and
imprisonment of journalist Gamal Fahmy, and increased government
interference with independent print media. On 16 March 1998, an appellate
court upheld a criminal libel conviction against Fahmy, managing editor of
the now-defunct "Al-Dustur" and a journalist with the weekly "Al-Arabi",
sentencing him to six months in prison. Fahmy was accused of libeling
Egyptian writer Tharwat Abaza in a 1995 column in which he criticized
Abaza's views about the 1956 Suez crisis and labeled Abaza's father a
British sympathizer. Fahmy was arrested by police on 21 March 1998 at his
home in Cairo and is currently serving his sentence in Torah Mazra prison
(for information on this case see IFEX alert of 30 March 1998).
Three weeks earlier, the Bulaq Misdemeanor Appeals Court, on 24 February
1998, upheld a libel conviction against Magdy Hussein, editor-in-chief of
the bi-weekly "Al-Sha'b", and Muhammad Hilel, a reporter for the newspaper.
The appellate court confirmed a one year-prison sentence against Hussein and
Hilel for allegedly libeling Alaa' al-Alfi, the son of former Interior
Minister Hassan al-Alfi. The conviction stemmed from a series of articles
published in "Al-Sha'b" in 1996, which alleged that Alaa' al-Alfi had used
his father's government position to profit from business deals. Hussein and
Hilel were detained on 8 March and 11 March respectively, and are currently
serving their sentences in Torah Mazra prison.
Regardless of the merits of the Hussein, Hilel, and Fahmy cases, CPJ
condemns any criminal prosecution for libel. The imprisonment of journalists
for alleged publications offenses runs counter to accepted democratic norms
for a free press, and inhibits the ability of the press to work freely.
Moreover this sudden spate of criminal libel convictions is alarming. The
convictions of Hussein, Hilel, and Fahmy are the first cases of journalists
being jailed in Egypt for libel offenses ever documented by CPJ.
CPJ's concerns regarding the Egyptian government's use of criminal libel
statutes are compounded by the high number of prosecutions of journalists
currently pending in the courts. According to provisional research provided
by the Cairo-based Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA), there are at
least 34 journalists who are awaiting trial or who are under investigation
for alleged publications offenses. Four of the 34 journalists are appealing
libel convictions in which they were sentenced to prison terms ranging from
3 months to one year.
In addition to the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists, CPJ is
deeply disturbed by intensified government efforts to harass and censor
independent print media. On 31 March 1998, the Egyptian Investment Authority
issued a decree ordering the suspension of all printing services for
magazines and newspapers which publish in the free investment zone
established in Nasser City. For some 40 publications, the free investment
zone is the only place where they may print in Egypt due to the fact that
they are licensed abroad, a measure they adopted in order to circumvent
government restrictions on printing licenses.
They face closure unless they are able to find alternative printing services
(for information on this case see IFEX alert of 3 April 1998).
Among those affected by the ban is the fortnightly magazine "Cairo Times",
which has been a target of increased government censorship in recent weeks.
On 3 March 1998, censors at the Ministry of Information threatened to ban
the magazine's 5 March edition because of an article describing the
authorities' detention of Andrew Hammond, the paper's deputy editor, and a
free-lance photographer working with the magazine, who were arbitrarily
detained on 17 February 1998 in front of the Cairo Press Syndicate. Both
were held for nearly six hours in the Ezbekia police station and State
Security Investigation (SSI) headquarters.
On 21 March 1998, the magazine's forthcoming issue was banned from
distribution after Hisham Kassem, the magazine's publisher, refused to
remove several articles from the magazine at the request of the censor,
including an interview with writer Khalil Abdel Karim, who recently had two
books banned by authorities, and five opinion pieces written by Egyptian
writers commenting on recent government restrictions on the press (for
information on this case see IFEX alert of 31 March 1998).
Another target of government censorship was the weekly "Al-Dustur", which on
26 February 1998 was informed by Al-Ahram Printing House, the paper's
printer, that the Ministry of Information had revoked the paper's publishing
license. The move was widely believed to have come as a result of an article
published in the 25 February 1998 edition of "Al-Dustur", which reported on
a communique allegedly issued by the militant Islamic Group, threatening to
kill three prominent Coptic businessmen it accused of economic sabotage.
Since its inception in December 1995, "Al-Dustur" had been the target of
repeated state harassment stemming from its coverage of sensitive political
issues in Egypt.
CPJ views the recent imprisonment of journalists and the censorship and
harassment of newspapers in Egypt as clear violations of the right to "seek,
receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless
of frontiers," as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of
Send appeals to authorities:urging them to adopt the following recommendations aimed at bringing
Egypt's practices in accordance with internationally guaranteed norms for
examine all possible legal options to rescind the appellate court
against Magdy Hussein, Muhammad Hilel, and Gamal Fahmy;
cease all criminal prosecutions of journalists in response to their
publication of news and opinion;
initiate meaningful efforts to abolish articles of the penal code which
provide for the imprisonment of journalists for alleged publications
offenses, and implement legal safeguards to protect journalists from
prosecution for their investigative reporting;
end government censorship of the media
His Excellency Muhammad Hosni Mubarak
President of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt
Fax: +202 355 57 00
Please copy appeals to the source if possible.