The editor of an Egyptian daily newspaper was sentenced to six months in prison on Wednesday for writing about the health of the President. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the Al-Dustour newspaper, who wrote an article suggesting that the health of 79-year-old President Hosni Mubarak was deteriorating.
The authorities contended that the article damaged the economy by causing foreign investors to withdraw investments worth some US$350million.
Speaking just after the sentence was handed down, Ibrahim Eissa said that the verdict is a part of the daily judicial harassment of journalists. He said that it is aimed at intimidating journalists into not exposing the leadership's policies and to prevent them from criticising President Mubarak publicly.
"They want to turn him into an untouchable, protected from any criticism or questioning. This verdict is also a continuation of other verdicts against me and other editors. With these verdicts they are mixing the judicial system with politics, trotting out provisions of Egyptian law that have been abandoned for ages and never used," said Ibrahim Eissa.
"The president's promises of 2004 [to abolish prison terms for publishing offences] are clearly a cosmetic cover-up. I have been given a sentence of six months, and other verdicts are expected Saturday, Monday, and the following Saturday. There is no journalist who has been exposed to so many verdicts in one week – perhaps in the world!"
Ibrahim Eissa was charged under Articles 171 and 188 of the Penal Code for publishing in 2007 information considered by the authorities to be damaging to the public interest and Egypt’s national stability. He can appeal the court's decision.
Amnesty International has called on the Egyptian authorities to drop the charges against him.
"This prosecution forms part of a wider pattern of the Egyptian authorities using criminal defamation and other charges to chill media expression and reporting on issues considered by the authorities as red lines, but which are, in reality, issues of clear public interest," said Amnesty International. "It underlines the need for the government to amend the controversial press law and all other provisions in the Penal Code that criminalise legitimate reporting.”
The press law adopted by the National Assembly in July 2006 added to existing restrictions on freedom of expression. Journalists and others continue to be at risk of imprisonment if they commit publishing offences, such as insulting public officials.
When the new law was introduced, independent and opposition newspapers withheld publication for a day in protest and hundreds of media workers protested outside the parliament building.
"We hope that the Court of Appeals, when it considers the case, will overturn this verdict and uphold the right to media freedom,” said Amnesty International. “The authorities should cease using criminal defamation charges to harass journalists and prevent their reporting on matters of legitimate public interest.”
Ibrahim Eissa will also stand trial on 31 March in a separate case on charges of spreading false information about President Mubarak’s health.
He was one of four newspaper editors who were sentenced in 2007 under Article 188 of the Egyptian Penal Code, which stipulates that anyone who “malevolently publishes false news, statements or rumours that is likely to disturb public order", should be imprisoned for up to one year prison and pay a fine of 20,000 Egyptian Pounds. All four have remained at liberty pending the outcome of their appeal, the next session of which is scheduled for 5 April.