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By William Fisher
No journalist in Egypt “will ever be imprisoned again for their opinions."
So proclaimed the jubilant chairman of Egypt’s Press Syndicate to the recent General Congress of Journalists. The chairman said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had abolished prison sentences for ‘publication offenses’. The President had rejected "any interference that could affect the independence of the Egyptian press or restrict the freedom of expression and opinion".
According to Al-Ahram, one of Egypt’s most prominent newspapers, “shouts rang through the crowd, and the applause lasted for several minutes.”
Little wonder. For years, Egyptian journalists have been campaigning unsuccessfully to end prosecutions for ‘publication offences’.
But how real are these reforms? Journalists were posing that question even before the cheering died down. A columnist for Al-Ahram said: "Although it is a positive step, it is not enough. There are several other crucial steps that need to be taken." She cited the right to establish newspapers, and the lifting of bans imposed on opposition and independent newspapers.
Prominent columnist Fahmy Howeidy argued that, without more vital forms of political reform, any other changes were trivial. Howeidy said there had to be a change in the basic relationship between the government and the press. "Journalists should not work for the government," he said. "They should act as government watchdogs. No newspaper should be a mouthpiece for the government or even for businessmen."
Another journalist -- whose publication has been the subject of repeated censorship by the Government -- told this writer, “To tell you the truth, I'm not terribly optimistic about this move. There are still plenty of things that journalists can do that will land them in jail -- for instance, tarnishing Egypt's image abroad. I'll get excited when they repeal the Emergency Laws….”
Egypt and its journalists have lived under the so-called Emergency Laws since the 1980s. The measures give the government unbridled powers to curtail free speech, arrest and detain ‘suspects’ for long periods without legal representation or specific charges, convict citizens for a wide range of ‘crimes’, including speech, writing or broadcasting that, in the Government’s opinion, brings disrespect to the State. The laws have been fiercely criticized by local and international human rights groups and by the US State Department in its annual human rights reports over a number of years.
The Journalists’ Syndicate’s relationship to the Government is itself suspect. The country’s Prime Minister, Atef Ebeid, recently made a substantial grant to the syndicate’s pension fund, as well as a salary increases for journalists. The government had waved both carrots prior to last July's elections, promising them as ‘perks’ if their candidate won.
Their candidate did not win. Journalists elected its new syndicate chairman last July, the first time in nearly two decades the post was secured by a candidate not allied to the government. The new chairman said that his election “clearly signaled the desire for change, not only among journalists but also throughout society as a whole.”
The Government’s press decision follows several other ‘reform’ initiatives taken by the Mubarak government over the past few months. The president abolished military courts and hard labor prison sentences, and ordered the formation of the National Council for Human Rights. The Council, headed by former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Galli, has been widely criticized by human rights groups, principally because its role is strictly advisory role and it has no enforcement authority.
"Via negotiations," the new Press Syndicate chairman said, "we are establishing a respectful relationship between the government and the press. We are not in confrontation with the government…political reform is bound to occur, and only then will the journalistic profession's ailments be cured. If there is political reform then ultimately there should be press reforms. The president's decision is an achievement along [that path]."
This language provides a chilling insight into the state of the press in Egypt – and throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa. The press should not have to ‘negotiate’ with government to secure its freedoms. And the press should be expected to be ‘in confrontation with the government’. Unless it is, it will continue to be unable to create informed public opinion.