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Egyptian journalists prosecuted over criticism of Morsi

The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed concern at Egypt's apparent abuse of the country's laws to intimidate journalists after two reporters known for their criticism of President Mohamed Morsi's government were ordered to stand "expedited" criminal trials.

On May 8, Magdy El-Galad, editor in chief of el-Watan newspaper, and Alaa El-Ghatrify, the newspaper's managing editor, were charged with "defamation of government figures." Public Prosecutor Talaat Ibrahim – who was appointed by President Morsi in November last year amidst widespread protests by members of the judiciary – justified the prosecution on the grounds that El-Watan had published "false news that aim to disturb public peace and stir panic." The charges were brought after the newspaper published a list of names of public figures who, the newspaper said, Islamic militants intended to assassinate.

Alarmingly, this is not the first time that the government of President Morsi has applied criminal laws to stifle criticism of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood - the Islamic movement that supports Morsi. Last August, IPI reported on the prosecution of journalists - Tawfiq Okasha and Islam Afifi - for their comments against the president. Okasha, the host of a political television program, was charged with "incitement to murder the president," after accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of inventing "Islamic Zionism." Afifi, on the other hand, was charged for "inciting the murder of, and insulting, the president," after an assertion by his newspaper that "a 'Brotherhood emirate' was taking over the country."

IPI has often condemned laws that allow for criminal prosecution of journalists on charges of "insults" or "defamation" and called for the application of civil remedies for such offences. "The criminalization of defamation, libel and insult, stifles legitimate criticism and fosters an environment of silence diametrically opposed to a healthy democratic climate marked by a free media," said IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills.

The negative consequences of utilizing the legal system to target journalists cannot be understated, especially in the Egyptian context. While IPI recognized the elections that followed the toppling of the Mubarak government as a chance for progress in the field of press freedom, it also deemed it important to closely monitor developments. With a history of violence and hostility against journalists, Egypt's press freedom record is poor. The exercising of judicial authority to further prosecute them is therefore unacceptable.

Additionally troublesome is the fact that such practices by the government have occurred in a setting where Egypt is still transitioning into a democracy after decades of authoritarian rule.

IPI urges the Egyptian government to drop the charges against the two journalists, to refrain from presenting similar ones in the future, and to reassess the criminalization of acts that fall within the scope of journalism.

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