A newspaper editor has been put on trial in Egypt for reporting that the president Hosni Mubarak was gravely ill.
Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent weekly al-Dustour and a well-known government critic, is accused of spreading "false information, damaging the public interest and national stability".
The charges relate to the publication of rumours, circulated widely during August, that Mr Mubarak, 79, was in poor health or had died. It is alleged that the publication of the rumours led to foreign investors pulling funds out of Egypt.
The case, which Mr Eissa did not attend, was heard in a packed and fractious courtroom cordoned off by a heavy security presence.
The prosecution lawyer, Samir al-Shishtawy, circulated a statement in court claiming that Mr Eissa and Egypt's independent press had "created an air of sadness and depression", through their outspoken criticism of the regime and reporting of the President's health. The prosecution also said in court that they would call witnesses from Egypt's central bank and stock market to prove that economic interests had been harmed by the publication of the rumours.
The current case comes in a period of intense pressure against the independent and opposition media in Egypt. In the past two weeks, six other journalists have been handed prison sentences as punishment for articles criticising the President and the judiciary.
"This trial is one of freedom of the press not of Ibrahim Eissa," the editor told AFP after the hearing.
"I hope the case will be decided in accordance with the law and that jailing journalists will be a red line, even if I have no faith in this regime," he said.
Mr Eissa was also convicted of insulting Mr Mubarak in a separate case on 13 October, which is pending an appeal.
The subject of Mr Mubarak's health is of particular sensitivity in Egyptian political circles, as the former air force pilot has never appointed a vice-president or nominated a successor. Although most political commentators say that the President's son, Gamal Mubarak, is being groomed for the job following his father's departure, the uncertainty surrounding the issue is the single greatest source of instability in Egyptian politics. In the past three years, independent and opposition media have enjoyed unprecedented freedom, and subjects formerly considered taboo – such as uncovering police abuses or criticising the President directly – have become commonplace.
However, a clampdown against political opponents, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the press has led the United States, Egypt's largest foreign aid donor, to criticise the government unusually directly. The White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said last week that "journalists and NGOs in Egypt ... should be permitted to carry out their peaceful work in a hospitable environment free from fear of harassment, reprisal, intimidation and discrimination."
A judge in a case against three journalists of the opposition al-Wafd newspaper unwittingly revealed the status of press freedom in Egypt as a privilege and not a right earlier this month, saying: "The court recognises that the press has never known such a degree of freedom as that which it enjoys under the authority of President Hosni Mubarak."
Mr Eissa's case has been adjourned until 24 October at the request of the defence, which asked for more time to examine prosecution documents.Reuse content