Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Activists accuse Egypt of moving to curb press freedom

AP AND AFP , CAIRO

Rights groups accused Egypt yesterday of curbing press freedom after a Cairo court this week sentenced four editors each to one year in prison for criticizing the president.

"Egypt continues to imprison journalists and editors who publish stories critical of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other high officials," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

It called on the government to repeal laws that allow authorities to "imprison writers and editors solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression."

On Thursday, a Cairo court sentenced Ibrahim Eissa of the al-Destur daily, Abdel Halim Qandil, former editor of al-Karama, Adel Hammuda of al-Fagr and Wael al-Ibrashi of Sawt al-Umma to one year in prison and fined them each 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,500) for "harming public interest."

The four had faced the more serious charge of "offense to the president," but in the end they were convicted of "harming the public interest ... by publishing false information in bad faith" last year.

At their trial, judge Sherif Ismail said that the journalists had libelled leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party -- including Mubarak's son Gamal -- by suggesting that the party was dictatorial.

"The trial of the four editors ... is part of a continuous series of attacks against free press in Egypt," Amnesty International said in a statement.

Amnesty called for a review of the press law passed in July last year under which publishing offences, such as insulting public officials, can lead to prison sentences.

"Press freedom does not exist in a country where the state can put you in prison simply for criticizing the president," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"This ruling and the new charges against [Eissa] are incompatible with Egypt's constitution and its commitments under international human rights law, not to mention Egypt's current membership on the UN Human Rights Council," she said.

Eissa faces a separate trial next month. He is accused of damaging public interest after reporting on widespread rumors of Mubarak's ill-health.

Journalists in Egypt can be sent to jail for writings that are deemed to insult the president or state institutions such as parliament or the Cabinet.

Meanwhile, Mubarak on Friday slammed Egyptian media reports about his allegedly poor health and said they aim to provoke chaos and destabilize national security.

Mubarak, 79, called on journalists to "rise above insignificant things" -- a reference to speculations about his health.

For several weeks last month, several opposition and independent newspapers here published stories claiming Mubarak's health was poor.

Mubarak has ruled Egypt for more than 25 years, but has not designated a successor, although many believe his son Gamal is being groomed for power.

The president's remarks on Friday came in an interview with the weekly al-Osboa, excerpts of which were carried by Egypt's official Middle East News Agency.

Friday's comments were the first time Mubarak made a reference to the media reports on his ill-health.

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