The imprisonment of journalists and the censorship and closure of newspapers punctuated a dark year for press freedom in Egypt. On February 24, an appellate court upheld a libel conviction against Magdy Hussein and Muhammad Hilal, the editor in chief and reporter, respectively, of the biweekly Al-Sha'b, sentencing each to one year in prison for publishing a story that said that the son of a former minister had used his father's position in government to profit from business deals. Their conviction and subsequent imprisonment were the first cases documented by CPJ of journalists imprisoned in Egypt for libel. Over the next three months, two other journalists were imprisoned for libel; by April, another 72 faced possible imprisonment for alleged libel charges that were either pending in court or under investigation.
Egyptian journalists expressed increasingly vocal opposition to the threats they faced from a variety of criminal statutes in the penal code. Highly interpretive charges such as "inciting hatred," "violating public morality," "harming the national economy," and offending a foreign head of state carry prison sentences of one to two years. Those charged with defamation face a maximum prison sentence of one year, and in cases where public officials are involved, they are subject to up to two years in prison. Fines reach as high as 20,000LE (US$5,900) for each offense.
Offering a ray of hope to journalists, a misdemeanor court in November gave the green light to the Cairo-based Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA) to file a suit with the Supreme Constitutional Court to challenge the constitutionality of the country's criminal defamation statutes. A favorable ruling could abolish the imprisonment penalty against journalists convicted of publications offenses.
Along with the jailing of journalists, authorities stepped up harassment and censorship of private newspapers. On February 26, the Ministry of Information revoked the publishing license of the popular weekly Al-Dustur.
Censorship of so-called "off-shore" publications -- publications that register abroad in order to circumvent government restrictions on publishing licenses -- intensified throughout the year. Because they register in foreign countries, these publications are subject to pre-censorship by the Ministry of Information. The fortnightly magazine Cairo Times was targeted on numerous occasions throughout the year.
Intensifying its assault, the General Authority for Free Zones and Investment issued a decree ordering the suspension of all printing services for magazines and newspapers that publish in the free investment zone established in Nasser City where most off-shore publications print. More than 30 publications were forced to secure expensive alternative printing services abroad until the decree was reversed. The government defended the move as an effort to crack down on tabloid journalism. "Any newspaper published from outside Egypt can be banned if it does not abide by Egyptian social values and seeks to stir up sectarian rift," President Hosni Mubarak said.
Authorities also stepped up censorship of foreign publications such as the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, whose editors estimated that an average of 10 issues a month were banned for covering politically sensitive issues that included the November U.S./British military attack on Iraq.
Attacks on the Press in Egypt in 1998:|
||Mustafa Bakry, Al-Ousbou'||Legal Action
||Mahmoud Bakry, Al-Ousbou'||Legal Action|
||Middle East Times||Censored|
||Amer Abdel Hadi Nassef, Al-Ousbou', Al-Ahrar||Imprisoned, Legal Action|
||Amer Nassef, Al-Ousbou', Al-Ahrar||Imprisoned, Legal Action
||Gamal Fahmy, Al-Arabi, Al-Dustur||Imprisoned|
||Misr al-Fatah||Legal Action|
||Magdy Hussein, Al-Sha'b||Imprisoned, Legal Action|
||Muhammad Hilal, Al-Sha'b||Imprisoned, Legal Action|