Saturday, June 22, 2024
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Egypt, democracy and their prized press

The US-based non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists came out with a protest letter a week ago to President Bush asking…

By Heba Elasaad , in Arab press making the news Blogs , on January 18, 2008

The US-based non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists came out with a protest letter a week ago to President Bush asking him to consider some of the latest atrocities committed to journalistic freedoms in the Middle East ahead of his meetings with Saudi’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.

In it are a number of referenced cases, including a group involving Cairo-based journalists that recently threw international human rights groups into a frenzy.

The Egyptian cases referred to deal with seven editors being handed criminal charges because they published articles saying President Mubarak is sick, which according to the government is a lie.

His wife, the ever-supportive Suzanne Mubarak, dismissed the concern after the 79-year-old president’s televised appearances failed to convince he was as healthy as ever.

“The president in Egypt is a god and the gods don’t get sick,” goes the offending front-page editorial by Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al Dostour newspaper, translated by the Chicago Tribune. “Mubarak’s state wants to present the President as someone who is sanctified, who makes no mistakes and who no one questions and no one competes against.”

Now, amendments were made to the Egyptian Criminal Code in 2006 meant to put an end to imprisonment in regards to cases of libel as they relate to the press.

So, what do Egypt’s democratic courts decide to do in response?

They started by charging the editors with (1) spreading rumours causing harm to the public interest, and (2) insulting the President. Eissa in particular faced heavier punishment because he was the first to say Mubarak was ill and is therefore accused of economic espionage.

Apparently, by claiming the President was sick, Eissa intentionally discouraged foreign investors and negatively affected the stock market and Egyptian economy. It is, as a result, a matter of national security.

The prosecution’s witnesses? The Director of the Central Bank of Egypt.

Interestingly, Reuters’ Cairo bureau quotes financial officials as saying the week of the change in market indexes were unrelated to the question of the president’s health:

“Egypt’s main stock indexes fell on August 29, by 0.7 and 0.8 percent, but brokers said this was because of fears of weakness in the U.S. economy. Many brokers told Reuters at the time the Mubarak health rumours were not a market factor.”

Still, Egypt is a democracy, and freedom of speech is an essential right listed in the Egyptian Constitution as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), on which Egypt has been a signatory since Oct 1, 1981. Since, uncountable human rights violations committed in the country have notoriously littered international news.

Thank goodness for democratic freedoms.