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The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights

Fierce attack on freedom of the press must be stopped

21 May 1998

The 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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This document is published online by Derechos Human Rights. Derechos works against violations to human rights and humanitarian law all over the world.