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Ahmed To Challenge ’Press Offences’
Ahmed To Challenge ’Press Offences’
Makram Mohamed Ahmed, newly elected Egyptian Journalists Syndicate chairman, has promised to pursue the syndicate?s longstanding goal of outlawing the practice of issuing jail terms for so-called "pub
"The legality of sentencing journalists to prison remains the biggest challenge to Egyptian journalism," Ali Hashem, former Journalists Syndicate secretary-general, told IPS.
Tuesday, November 27,2007 23:22
by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani IPS

"The legality of sentencing journalists to prison remains the biggest challenge to Egyptian journalism," Ali Hashem, former Journalists Syndicate secretary-general, told IPS.

"The practice will never be done away with in the absence of a strong syndicate leadership capable of transcending party politics," Hashem said.

In 2004, President Hosni Mubarak vowed to amend Egypt"s press laws to eliminate the application of prison terms to publication offences. Last year, the president made good -- partially -- on his promise by overseeing the amendment of several relevant articles of the penal code.

Mubarak"s changes -- hailed at the time as proof of the government"s commitment to journalistic freedom -- limited the maximum penalty for the crimes of libel and invective to stiff monetary fines. Previously, these transgressions had carried maximum penalties of three years in prison.

Reporters still risk serving jail time if found guilty of a number of other print-related offences. These include the publication of "false information" and the publication of material deemed "offensive to the president of the republic", among others.

In September, 11 independent opposition journalists -- including five prominent editors-in-chief -- received prison sentences for publishing false information about senior figures of Mubarak"s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Along with financial penalties, the defendants -- all of whom are currently free on bail awaiting appeal -- face jail terms ranging from two months to two years.

According to many independent critics, the harsh sentences come as part of a wider campaign by the government aimed at silencing voices critical of the Mubarak regime.

"The NDP has decided it can no longer tolerate newspapers that expose official mismanagement and corruption," Wael al-Ibrashi, editor-in-chief of independent weekly Sout al-Umma and one of those facing a possible jail term, was quoted as saying at the time. "It"s a signal that anyone who stands up to the NDP will be gotten rid of."

Earlier this month Mubarak stated flatly that journalists could not expect to be exempted from punishment for certain offences.

"As for publication-related crimes . . . it is entirely out of the question to amend the law to make exceptions for journalists," the president said in a Nov. 9 interview with state daily Al-Missa.

In the following day"s edition of the same newspaper, a "clarification" was issued in which Mubarak reiterated his "support for journalistic freedom".

"Mubarak"s initial statements revealed his true intentions," Abdel-Halim Kandil, former editor-in-chief of opposition weekly Al-Karama and one of those facing possible jail time, told IPS. "The regime can"t contain journalists" criticisms without resorting to the threat of incarceration."

This issue was at the core of recent elections for the post of Journalist Syndicate chairman, held on Nov. 17. The contest -- held every two years -- is decided by some 5,000 syndicate members working in the government, independent, and opposition press.

The hotly-contested election was won by the 73-year-old Makram Mohamed Ahmed, who beat out five other candidates running for the post. Ahmed, who already served two terms as syndicate chairman in the 1990s, is a former chairman of the state-owned Dar al-Hilal print house and former editor-in-chief of government magazine Al-Musawwer.

Because of his long-time affiliations with major state print institutions, Ahmed is seen by some of his detractors as being particularly close to the government. Ahmed, however, vociferously denies this claim and has consistently stressed his political independence.

"I have never been a government lackey," Ahmed was quoted as saying in the state press days before the election. "I have my own views that on many occasions have contradicted those of the government, which I have often criticised," he said.

Like all other candidates for the position, Ahmed pledged to work towards the abolition of jail sentences for press offences.

In a highly publicised campaign promise, he vowed to resign from his post within two months if the pending cases in which journalists faced jail terms weren"t dropped.

Some of his critics, however, express doubt as to Ahmed"s ability -- or genuine desire -- to deliver on his promise.

"He might try to prevent journalists from getting slapped with jail terms, but he won"t work towards the total abolition of the practice," said Kandil. "He will also attempt to prevent protests from being organised by journalists to protest the issue."

In recent years, the syndicate"s headquarters in central Cairo has become a regular venue for political protests against government policies.

Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of independent daily Al-Dustour, also expressed reservations as to Ahmed"s capacity to effect real change.

"Ahmed will no doubt negotiate the issue with the government," Eissa, who also faces possible jail time in two separate cases, told IPS. "But he will only work for a temporary solution -- not because he"s the government"s man, but because the journalistic community remains weak and divided."

Others, however, express more faith in the syndicate"s new chairman, saying that his perceived closeness to the government could serve to bolster his negotiating position.

"Ahmed would not have vowed to resign without receiving some government assurances that journalists" demands would be met," said Hashem. "If the prison sentences aren"t dropped, he might very well quit the post in an effort to embarrass the government."

Along with a new chairman, journalists also elected new members to the syndicate"s 12-member Press Council for the next four-year term. In the end, eight seats went to candidates affiliated with the state press (but not necessarily with the NDP), two to representatives of the leftist Nasserist Party, and two to members of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement.

"All political orientations are represented in the new council," noted Eissa. "But all of them agree on the need to overturn the legality of applying jail terms to press offences."

Mohamed Abdel-Qadoos, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated member of the Press Council, agreed.

"Syndicate members voted for those who would strive to abolish the practice of jailing journalists," Abdel-Qadoos told IPS. "Even those council members affiliated with the state press are sympathetic to this basic demand."

According to Hashem, the issue is of consequence to more than just Egypt"s journalistic community.

"The problem affects our entire society," he said. "It represents a major obstacle in the way of freedom of expression in general."

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