Censorship: Egypt declares war on the press

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Egypt has launched an unprecedented campaign against the press in Cairo, taking Arab journalists to court for a story that was never published and banning foreign correspondents from reporting attacks on tourists. All this in a country which claims to be a functioning

democracy.

"Meet me in court," Magdi Hussein said. And sure enough, when I turn up at the Egyptian ministry of justice's courthouse in the Cairo suburb of Abbassiya, there is the bespectacled and bearded editor of the Islamist Al-Shaab newspaper - published twice weekly with a circulation of 130,000 - standing in the tired atrium of Court Number 3, wearing his usual friendly scowl of contempt for authority. He is appealing a libel case brought by Alaa al-Alfi, the son of the interior minister, whom his newspaper has accused of refusing to settle a Cairo hotel bill and then bullying the staff when they demanded payment.

Mr Hussein spends a lot of his time accusing the ruling authorities of corruption. So do other journalists in Cairo. Mr Hussein himself awaits trial on six other hearings, including another libel case for hearing in a criminal court brought by minister Hassan al-Alfi himself - whom Mr Hussein accuses of protecting drug traffickers. Four other writers and a cartoonist on Al-Shaab are named in the charge. Minister al-Alfi, needless to say, denies everything. And like Egypt itself, Mr Hussein's court cases drag on without resolution.

Kafka - cliche though it may be to say so - would be at home in Court Number 3. The ceiling fans slowly turn the sweaty heat high above us while against the wall, 20 handcuffed prisoners stand inside a medieval iron cage, awaiting trial. Lawyers howl pleas at the three docile-looking civilian judges while guards bawl at women relatives of the caged men. Above the din, I can just hear one of the minister's two advocates demanding a verdict within hours. Mr Hussein - uncaged - stands before the bench with the same unpitying smile.

It would be pleasant to believe that this is some kind of aberration, a freak deviation from Egypt's much trumpeted (and American-backed) democracy. Alas, no. Only last month, a Cairo court found six journalists from the Saudi-owned Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat guilty of libelling President Hosni Mubarak's two sons, Ala and Gamal, by claiming that both used their father's name for furthering business deals. Five of the reporters escaped imprisonment because they were outside the country but the sixth, an Egyptian, received six months in jail.

Oddly, the supposedly libellous article never appeared - the Egyptians started proceedings on the basis of an advertisement in the paper for a story that was to appear in its sister magazine Al-Jedida. It was only after Asharq pulped 120,000 copies of the offending magazine, fired two journalists and issued a grovelling apology that the unforgiving Egyptians took the journalists to court. Asharq, one of the most prestigious of Arab journals, then closed its Cairo office.

Military prosecutors meanwhile banned reporters from writing about the killing of nine German tourists by gunmen outside the Cairo National Museum last month. The ministry of tourism said journalists had no right to question the official version of the attack on the bus - which states that two rather than five gunmen staged the assault - nor to call it an organised "Islamist terrorist" operation because the principle gunman was "insane". The fact that the principal killer, Saber abu el-Ulla, shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) as he set fire to the bus was ignored.

Even more embarrassing was the fact that Saber abu el-Ulla was responsible for killing two Americans and a Frenchman in 1993 (again crying "Allahu Akbar" and again excused as "insane"). The Egyptians, of course, are frightened that their tourist industry will again collapse if the slaughter of the Germans appears to be political. Potential tourists should not be warned. Hence the ban. Even this report is thus technically in breach of Egyptian law.

Already one major European news organisation has cravenly come to heel and censored all its reports on the attack. International news agencies and television companies are equally fearful that if they breach the censorship law, the Egyptians may close their offices. Thus Cairo bureaux have become hostages to prevent journalists from reporting the story: preservation of the office, it seems, is more important than the truth. "The government also intimidates our Egyptian stringers," a foreign news agency journalist says. "When this happens, our news dries up. So what are we going to cover?"

The independent Cairo-based Middle East Times suffered official punishment on 22nd August when its editor, Thomas Cromwell, was detained at Cairo airport and deported to Athens without explanation. His next editorial, written abroad, was headlined "a Letter from Exile" and admitted government censorship of the paper.

"It's very difficult to have a free press without real democracy," Magdi Hussein says outside Court Number 3. "The government cancelled democracy when they held elections which were unfair and now they refuse to allow us to investigate corruption in high places. There is a red line and journalists must not cross that red line." But hasn't he done just that, I ask? The grim returns. "That," he says, "is why I'm here now."

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