Freedom of the Press
Restrictions on press freedom continued in 2009, as Egyptian reporters tested the boundaries of acceptable coverage but were confronted by arrests, lawsuits, and state-sponsored assaults. The Emergency Law, the Press Law, and penal code provisions circumscribe the media, despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom. Approximately 35 articles in various laws specify penalties for the media, ranging from fines to prison time. Even after amendments to the Press Law in 2006, dissemination of “false news,” criticism of the president and foreign leaders, and publication of material that constitutes “an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals” or an “outrage of the reputation of families” remain criminal offenses that are prosecuted opportunistically by the authorities. Penalties include fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$900 to US$3,600) for press infractions, and up to five years in prison for criticizing the president or a foreign head of state. Article 48 of the constitution prohibits censorship, except under emergency law. The Emergency Law (No. 162 of 1958), which has been in effect without interruption since 1981 and was most recently extended in 2008, allows the authorities to ban publications for reasons of national security or public order and try offenders in military tribunals with limited right to appeal. Journalists have few professional protections and no right to access of information, and they remain vulnerable to prosecution under these laws, though some judges have asserted their independence and proved willing to stand up to the state.
Reporters Without Borders found that complaints brought by the government, companies, and the military against journalists and bloggers have increased since 2008 to a rate of one per day in 2009. According to local human rights organizations, at least 57 journalists from 13 newspapers were involved in 28 lawsuits in the first quarter of 2009, and an estimated 60 defamation suits were filed during 2009 against the independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm alone. Hisba lawsuits, in which a citizen with no legal interest in a case can sue for blasphemy or other supposed religious violations, have been used with increasing frequency to intimidate and prosecute journalists and bloggers.
A series of high-profile legal cases against independent and opposition journalists were resolved on appeal in 2009, with courts often overturning prison sentences but upholding fines. In one such case in February 2009, an appeals court struck down one-year jail terms for four editors convicted of criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and his top aides, though it left intact the fine of 20,000 pounds (US$3,600) against each of them. One of the editors, Adel Hamouda of the independent weekly Al-Fagr, received another fine of 10,000 pounds (US$1,820) in December for defaming a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Also in February, a Cairo court fined five journalists convicted of violating a ban on media coverage of the murder trial of Hisham Talaat Moustafa, an Egyptian billionaire and NDP member accused of ordering the murder of his reputed mistress, Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim.
Among other cases during the year, an appeals court in April overturned the conviction of Cairo News Company (CNC) for illegally supplying video footage of a violent April 2008 strike in the textile town of Mahalla. The CNC—which offers technical support to broadcasters and is the foreign news media’s primary provider of broadcast equipment and services—had faced a fine of 150,000 pounds (US$27,000), and the company’s head faced a five-year prison sentence. A court in May overturned a two-year jail sentence against human rights defender Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who had been convicted of defamation in 2008 for publishing “inflammatory” articles about the ruling party in the foreign press. Editor Yasser Barakat of the independent Al-Mougaz weekly was convicted in June of defaming lawmaker Mustafa Bakry in a series of articles, but the public prosecutor released him pending appeal. An appeals court in July overturned the conviction of a government clerk over an insulting poem about Mubarak that he wrote but never published.
Licensing of newspapers is controlled by the government, and at least five news publications reportedly had their licenses revoked in 2009. Ibdaa magazine, which is published by the Ministry of Culture, was banned in April for printing an allegedly blasphemous poem in 2007, though its license was reinstated two months later. Authorities revoked Al-Balagh newspaper’s license in October even though their investigation into the paper’s reports on homosexual actors was still ongoing at year’s end.
A draft audiovisual broadcasting bill that was under consideration in the parliament would assign penalties ranging from one month to three years in prison for “attacking social peace, national unity, public order and society’s values.” The bill also provides for the creation of a national broadcasting regulatory agency headed by Information Ministry officials and members of the state security services. The agency would be empowered to withdraw news outlets’ licenses arbitrarily.
In addition to legal and regulatory harassment, journalists and bloggers in 2009 commonly faced physical assaults, illegal detention, abduction, and confiscation of equipment. Hossam al-Hendy of Al-Dostour and Farouk al-Gamal of Al-Masry al-Youm were assaulted in early March. Just days later, Maher Abd al-Wahed of Al-Youm al-Sabah was assaulted, detained, and deprived of his mobile telephone while covering a sit-in at the Ministry of Irrigation. Also in March, a journalist for Al-Fagr was convicted of insulting a policeman who had allegedly beaten him. Journalist Seham Shouda was assaulted in May while covering a court case regarding the export of gas to Israel.
Although there are more than 550 newspapers, magazines, journals, and other periodicals in Egypt, this apparent diversity disguises the government’s role as a media owner and sponsor. A majority of print outlets are still in the hands of the state, which also owns 99 percent of newspaper retail outlets, and individuals cannot own more than a 10 percent stake in any newspaper. Editors of Egypt’s three largest newspapers, Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, and Al-Gomhorya, are appointed by the president. The president also heads the High Press Council, which must approve all new newspaper licenses along with the cabinet and security services. The government supports state media directly and through advertising subsidies, and independent media face significant financial challenges. The independent Al-Badeel, for example,closed in 2009 for financial reasons.
All terrestrial television broadcasters—two national and six regional—are owned and operated by the government through the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). There are, however, four privately owned, independent satellite channels and several pan-Arab stations that attract wide viewership. Authorities continued to ban or block shows and stations without cause or due process. In September, the minister of information banned the Hokuma Show (Cabinet Show) following a comedy sketch that criticized the prime minister. Egypt in March blocked the signal to Iran’s Al-Alam satellite channel on both the Arabsat and Nilesat systems, cutting off access for viewers in more than 100 countries. While the state radio monopoly ended in 2003, the handful of private radio stations operating in the country concentrate on music and entertainment programming.
Thanks in large part to government efforts to aggressively promote internet use, the number of Egyptians with access to this medium has more than quadrupled over the past several years. The internet was accessed by 20 percent of the population in 2009, with many users sharing access points. Increasing numbers of Egyptians are subscribing to high-bandwidth connections, but regulators have set a new policy to impose fees, limit sharing of such lines, and restrict the speed of connections. Although the internet is not filtered, some sensitive websites have been occasionally blocked in the past. In May, a court ordered the government to block pornographic sites, but the minister of communications and information technology has refused to implement such filtering.
The Egyptian blogosphere remains extremely lively, with a large range of opinions freely expressed online and a wide breadth of content available to users of the medium. In response, the government has continued to harass and intimidate those who publish online. The Committee to Protect Journalists in 2009 named Egypt as one of the 10 worst countries in which to be a blogger, citing dozens of arrests and illegal detentions. In addition, bloggers reported surveillance and hacking of their personal accounts. Authorities stepped up the detention of bloggers and journalists at the airport in 2009, seizing laptops and other digital equipment. The disturbing trend of denying due process also continued. The government appeared to target bloggers who wrote about Palestinian issues, who travelled abroad (usually to speak about human rights in Egypt), and who had dual nationality and ties to Western countries.In February, two bloggers who wrote about the Gaza Strip and Palestinian issues were arrested and detained for several days. In May, an appeals court upheld a January defamation conviction against Tamer Mabrouk, whose blog had exposed pollution by a private company. He was ordered to pay 42,500 pounds (US$7,500) in fines and compensation. In June, Wael Abbas, editor of the online news site Misr Digital, was arrested at the airport and his computer seized. He was sentenced in November in absentia for allegedly damaging an internet connection. Other cases during the year included the arrest of three Muslim Brotherhood bloggers in July after they wrote critical posts about military trials of Brotherhood members, and the deportation of a pro-Palestinian Swedish journalist and blogger in October. In December, an appeals court upheld the four-year prison sentence of blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, who had been convicted in 2006 on several charges, including defamation. Blogger Reda Abdel Rahman—arrested in October 2008 for “insulting Islam”—was released in January, but several other bloggers remained in prison at year’s end, including Kareem Amer, Hani Nazeer, and Mosad Abu Fagr. Facebook has become a target of government repression, as exemplified by the illegal detention of an activist and the confiscation of his computer after he posted information about copyright infringement by a leading advertising executive on a Facebook group page.
Press Freedom Score