Cairo Communique: New Press Law Alienates Mubarak's Media Supporters

By Napoli, James J. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 1995 | Go to article overview

Cairo Communique: New Press Law Alienates Mubarak's Media Supporters


Napoli, James J., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Cairo Communique: New Press Law Alienates Mubarak's Media Supporters

By James J. Napoli

Ibrahim Nafie was sweating.

The head of the Egyptian Press Syndicate was sitting on stage under television lights in an un-airconditioned conference room jammed with journalists on a stifling hot Cairo afternoon.

But that wasn't the only reason he was sweating. Nafie, who is also editor-in-chief of the semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper, was being buffeted between protests and cheers from about 2,000 journalists at the Syndicate headquarters in central Cairo.

He had proposed only that a strike be threatened if the government did not back down from a repressive new press law. Now waves of anger from his constituents were forcing him to set a specific strike date, June 24, only two weeks from that day's gathering.

Nafie, a government appointee and one of the chief spokesmen for the Mubarak regime, was in a miserably uncomfortable spot at the head of a possible walkout that could put the regime in a dangerous, perhaps fatal position. But he had no choice.

Members of the Press Syndicate, who have a deserved reputation for passivity, had finally been aroused by a sweeping new law, passed abruptly and without consultation by the People's Assembly in May, to protect the regime and Mubarak's own family from embarrassing charges of corruption in the opposition press. The allegations have been picked up and widely disseminated by foreign journalists.

The law, whose passage was engineered by People's Assembly chief Fathi Sorour, would impose fines and prison sentences from 5 to 15 years for journalists for a range of vaguely worded crimes. These include publishing false or malicious information, inflammatory propaganda and anything that disturbs the public peace. Also punishable is anything that harms the public interest--including damage to the national economy--or that holds state institutions and officials in contempt.

Previous penalties were limited to fines from LE 20 (about $6) to LE 500, and up to a year in prison. Journalists also were protected from arrest while an investigation was under way.

Under the new rules, journalists could be thrown in jail for almost anything, and they would have to provide documentary proof for anything they printed. The latter is virtually impossible in a country where most official documents are inaccessible, official statistics are of dubious value and government officials are reticent or uncooperative.

In a not-for-attribution discussion of the new law, an Egyptian ambassador justified it on grounds that the opposition press had been free to publish any reckless libel, without evidence and without fear of reprisals. The new law was only meant to intimidate the press into more responsible behavior, he said, and probably would not be enforced. President Mubarak himself asserted at the May 29 Media Day celebration that the law would not affect anyone who wrote "honorably and with trust."

The new law has united journalists against the government.

But, unluckily for the Mubarak government, the law has had precisely the opposite of the intended effect: Instead of intimidating the press, it has united journalists in both the national and opposition papers against the government and spurred the opposition press to even greater extremes. The extent of the trouble was first signaled by a sit-in by more than 1,000 journalists--about a third of the total membership--at Syndicate headquarters June 6.

Passage of the law invited comparisons with the repressive treatment accorded the press by the regimes of the late Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. President Sadat was killed by religious extremists in 1981, the same year he rounded up and imprisoned hundreds of uncooperative journalists.

"Strike," said Hassan El-Rashidi, a member of the Press Syndicate board of directors and employee of the government paper Al-Gomhouria. He said that although the Syndicate preferred to get the government to back down in negotiations, minor amendments to the law would not be enough. …

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