The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Fierce attack on freedom of the press must be stopped
21 May 1998The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) received with deep concern and distress the ruling passed by the Abdeen Court of Appeals for Misdemeanors yesterday, 20 May 1998, ordering the imprisonment of journalist Amr Abdel-Hadi Nasif. He was sentenced to three months with labour on charges of libel and slander against writer Tharwat Abaza for a series of articles he wrote in Al-Ahrar newspaper. A court of first instance had previously sentenced Nasif to one year in prison but, on appeal, the punishment was reduced to three months in prison. This is the fourth ruling issued against journalists within a period of less than three months. On 24 February 1998, Magdi Ahmed Hussein, editor-in-chief of Al-Sha'ab newspaper, and Mohammed Hilal, journalist of the same newspaper, were sentenced to one year in prison with labour on charges of libel and slander against Alaa Al-Alfi, the son of the former minister of the interior. Also, on 18 March 1998 Gamal Fahmy, journalist of Al-Arabi newspaper, was sentenced to six months in prison with labour charged with libel and slander against writer Tharwat Abaza. The three journalists are serving sentence in Mazra'it Tora Prison, where Amr Abdel-Hadi Nasif is expected to join them. While the EOHR has consistently expressed its full respect for judicial rulings, it fears that the latest sentences constitute a retraction by the Egyptian judiciary of its supportive attitude towards freedom of opinion and expression as a reaction to the current tense climate against freedom of the press. In this respect, it is worth recalling a ruling made by the Egyptian Court of Cassation in 1926 acquitting a journalist who had been convicted by the Cairo Penal Court on charges of insulting the then prime minister. The journalist had published an article in which he accused the prime minister of ignorance, short-sightedness and lack of judgment. He also accused the members of the legislative council of being mean, vile, greedy and covetous. The Court of Cassation reasoned that the article fell within what was considered permissible criticism. It added that the journalist had used strong language and stinging criticism as an exaggeration to denounce the deed itself. The EOHR reiterates its concern about the last ruling, as it represents a serious threat to the freedom and safety of journalists to perform their duties and restricts the right to make permissible criticism, which constitutes one of the pillars of the freedom of the press. This restriction is a violation of the provisions of the Constitution and of Egypt's international commitments as a signatory party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The EOHR appeals to the Egyptian legislature to revoke all freedom-restricting punishments included in the Penal Code of 1937 for opinion and publication offences. In such offences, it should be enough the imposition of fines and the right to reply and issue a correction in the same newspaper, as well as the right, when necessary, to take legal action in order to secure full respect for the private life of all citizens without prejudice to the freedom of the press. The EOHR calls upon all civil society institutions to work together to confront this fierce assault on freedom of the press, and to pressure the Egyptian Government to revoke the current penal provisions related to opinion and publication. The flexible and vague wording of such provisions allow, in effect, for the disregard of all the rights related to the freedoms of opinion, expression and publication.
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