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CRACKDOWN ON FREE EXPRESSION CONTINUES AMID DEMONSTRATIONS

The Egyptian authorities have intensified their onslaught on satellite broadcasters and journalists, the latest in a series of attacks against free expression and the free flow of information in a country once at the forefront of press freedom in the Middle East, say IFEX members.

Last week, security forces raided Cairo News Company, a prominent company which leases satellite equipment and services about 40 satellite channels in Egypt, and seized five sets of broadcasting equipment.

"Confiscating broadcasting devices is a reprehensible act aimed at thwarting satellite channels to prevent them from broadcasting direct coverage of events in Egypt," says the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information (HRInfo). "The Egyptian government is building a wall around Egyptian citizens and is imposing an information blackout on them."

Already, three satellite television channels - Al Hiwar, Al Baraka, and Al Hikma - have been banned by Egypt's state-run Nilesat satellite, two allegedly at the request of the U.S., report ARTICLE 19 and HRInfo.

The bans and raid coincide with the launch of a new charter for satellite TV, leading to speculations that the actions are in retaliation for the stations' critical reporting.

"Principles for Organising Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region", approved by Arab information ministers in February, calls for satellite TV broadcasts not to offend Arab leaders or national and religious symbols, damage "social peace and national unity and public order," or call into question God or the monotheistic religions. Programmes should also conform to the religious and ethical values of Arab society.

The blackouts come at a time when soaring food prices are causing country-wide demonstrations that are receiving little accurate coverage in the mainstream media. Journalists and bloggers who tried to cover the protests have been detained.

Workers at the country's largest textile factory, in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra, attempted to strike on 6 April, only to be blocked by a massive deployment of security forces, report Human Rights Watch and free expression website Menassat.com. Angry crowds took to the streets for two days, protesting against low wages and price hikes, while solidarity strikes popped up across the country - what some observers say is a sign of an upsurge in Egypt's nascent pro-democracy movement.

In Mahalla, a 15-year-old bystander was killed, apparently by police, and more than 100 people were wounded, says Human Rights Watch. According to Menassat.com, eyewitnesses said that police arrested anyone taking pictures, especially journalists, and confiscated their equipment.

U.S. freelance photographer James Buck and his Egyptian interpreter, Mohammed Saleh Ahmed Maree, were arrested and detained on 10 April, report Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Buck was taking photos of roughly 200 people who had gathered outside of a police station in Mahalla demanding to know the whereabouts of their detained relatives. Buck, who was released and is back in the U.S., is now lobbying for the release of Maree and hundreds of others who were detained.

Among those arrested were bloggers Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed, who launched the "6 April" group on Facebook, which has more than 65,000 members; and Muhammad Al Sharkawi, who was arrested on 5 April while distributing leaflets urging Cairo residents to go on strike. Sharkawi was released on 21 April. Sharkawi heads the Cairo-based publishing house Malameh, which was raided by a moral decency police unit on 16 April for publishing a comic book called "Metro". Copies of the book were seized on the grounds that it harmed "public decency", says HRInfo.

"There were no legal grounds for these arrests," says RSF. "The authorities do not know who is behind this protest because it was launched on the Internet. So they are cracking down on anyone who may have issued the strike call, and bloggers are likely suspects."

Journalists, bloggers and activists heavily criticised the way the Mahalla protests were covered by the official media, which "presented the citizens of Mahalla as saboteurs, thereby providing an excuse for the violent police suppression." Some journalists said that police officers lay in hospital beds waiting for photographers to show up so they could pose as victims of mob violence, reports Menassat.com.

Egyptian authorities have consistently used prosecutions as a way to suppress free expression in Egypt. Ibrahim Issa, editor of the opposition paper "Al-Dustour", last month received a six-month jail term for raising questions about the health of President Hosni Mubarak, who is celebrating his 80th birthday on 4 May - the date of a newly planned national strike. Next month Issa is appealing his sentence, and along with three other editors, is facing a separate trial on 3 May for defaming Mubarak and other high officials.

IFEX members HRInfo, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies are planning a solidarity event in Cairo with the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate on 17 May, prior to Issa's return to court the following day.

Visit these links:

Satellite broadcasters:
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/54wm98
- "IFEX Communiqué": http://tinyurl.com/65jend
- HRInfo: http://www.hrinfo.net/en/reports/2008/pr0419.shtml
Mahalla protests and journalists' arrests:
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26553
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/6yv2rd
- HRInfo: http://www.hrinfo.net/en/reports/2008/pr0416.shtml
- Menassat.com: http://tinyurl.com/4mfh24
- JamesKarlBuck.com: http://jameskarlbuck.com/
- Free Maree: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/free-mohammed-maree
IFEX Egypt page: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/1446/

(Photo of Mahalla protest taken by James Buck)

(22 April 2008)

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