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Egypt steps on the press as it backtracks on democratic reform

By Sarah GauchCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2007



CAIRO

Court proceedings started Sunday against Howaida Taha, an Al Jazeera journalist arrested while producing a documentary on police torture in Egypt. She's charged with harming national interests and faces five years in prison.

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Meanwhile, Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer has been in jail since November awaiting trial, charged with criticizing Islam and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Taken together, these cases have given journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists in Egypt cause to fear an impending crackdown on the country's outspoken independent press and its young, activist bloggers, who have been primary agitators for democratic reform.

"These attacks on the press send a chilling message to all members of the media who attempt to tackle sensitive topics," says Joel Campagna, Middle East program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "There's been a steady level of pressure against domestic and pan-Arab media, and bloggers, which might be coming to a head."

Over the past year, the government has steadily rolled back political reforms implemented since 2004 after the Bush administration singled out Egypt as ripe for democratic reform. Since then, Egypt has held parliamentary elections that were allegedly rife with fraud, police have violently suppressed demonstrations, and the government has arrested hundreds of opposition Muslim Brotherhood members, who hold 88 out of 454 parliamentary seats.

And many worry Egypt's relative freedom of expression may be ending, too. Indeed, they say, Ms. Taha's case is alarming. She was accused of fabricating scenes of torture after the authorities discovered her unedited video including reenactments of torture scenes. Taha says she had Interior Ministry cooperation for the project and had told them about the reenactments.

Activists and journalists say the government is trying to squash accusations of Egyptian police torture with Taha's case, which comes amid revelations of rampant abuse after bloggers posted videos online of apparent police torture.

In one particular case, a minibus driver is shown being sodomized with a stick. Since the tape surfaced, two police officers have been jailed and are scheduled to stand trial. The driver, who subsequently filed a complaint against the police, is serving three months in prison for resisting the authorities.

Mr. Amer is the first Egyptian blogger to face trial. A young former law student at Al-Azhar University, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning, he has been in solitary confinement since being jailed. His trial was adjourned last week until Thursday.

In addition to these two cases, about 45 independent and opposition journalists in Egypt face court cases, according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. While none of those are currently jailed, several are appealing guilty verdicts.

"For many of these cases, the Egyptian government starts the investigation and just leaves the file open," says human rights activist Gamal Eid. "This sends the message: You are under our microscope and we can restart this case at any time."

Although Mr. Mubarak promised in 2004 to abolish prison sentences for journalists, when the country's press laws were amended last July incarceration for journalists – and bloggers – remained.

The government denies accusations of stifling free expression. "Freedom of expression is guaranteed and granted on all levels," says one government official, who asked to remain anonymous. "There are at least 10 newspapers who daily criticize the government, including the president."

Although Egypt is more tolerant, Mr. Campagna says, its tactics also follow a regional trend of limiting free expression. "When we look at the region now versus 10 years ago it's much rarer to see governments using actual repression, throwing journalists in prison," he says. "Today, governments are employing more effective, subtle means of pressure: bringing journalists before courts with the prospect of jail time, behind-the-scene pressure from security agents. This is as effective as actual imprisonment."

Increased pressure, however, on the press and bloggers doesn't seem to have cowed many. "I will not stop exposing the government through my work," says Al Jazeera's Taha, who has copies of her confiscated tapes and is already back at work on her documentary, part of a series about human rights abuses in Arab countries.

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