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A hundred years of curbs on press freedom in Egypt

CAIRO: A hundred years ago, 25,000 people took to the streets to protest a new publications law that made it easier for the government of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, along with Khedive Abbas Helmy II and the British colonialists, to shut down newspapers through administrative and financial restraints.

Editor of Al-Qatar Ahmed Helmi was at the time standing trial on the charge of insulting the person and position of the Khedive after penning an editorial titled "Egypt for the Egyptians."

Helmi was one of the leaders of the demonstration of March 31, 1909. He was later to become the first Egyptian journalist to be imprisoned for a publishing offense.

One hundred years on and Egyptian journalists still face the possibility of imprisonment for the words they write.

The centennial was marked at the Journalists’ Syndicate Monday with a seminar that highlighted the struggles Egypt’s journalists face today, struggles similar to the ones Helmi faced a century ago.

At the top of the list remains the demand that journalists not be imprisoned for publishing crimes.

Gamal Fahmy, board member at the Journalists’ Syndicate, was imprisoned six months in Torah in 1998 for the alleged defamation of writer Tharwat Abaza.

He said, "Any freedom the press has is an unofficial one, which can be revoked at anytime."

"The Egyptian people have the right to a free press and freedom of expression. A hundred years ago there was a demonstration against a foreign occupier, but now we have a domestic occupier. We practice journalism under threat of arrest," he added.

Recent events denote a widespread curb on press freedom, and rights organizations that track freedom of expression have noticed a marked increase in punitive actions meted out against journalists in the past seven years.

Speaking on behalf of human rights groups, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid said, "There has been annual regression in press freedom since 2002. Every year has been worse than the one before. 2007 was the worst year for press freedom since Egyptian independence in 1952."

"There is no other country in the world where cases were brought against 500 journalists in one year," he claimed.

Yet the technological advances of the past century have led to a diffusion of the ways in which information and news is disseminated. Chief amongst this type of citizen journalism in Egypt has been blogging, which, with the restraints on traditional press, has become an outlet of choice, said the panel.

However, blogging is not without its own dangers as bloggers have sometimes found themselves suffering the same constraints faced by traditional journalists. The fact that they are not officially recognized has also made it easier to crack down on them.

"The modes of publication have changed over a hundred years, but the fight for freedom continues. And what constrains traditional journalists also constrains us. Bloggers aren’t really tried by the law, because the authorities exact retribution on the spot," said blogger Nora Younis.

"The blogger is kidnapped from the street, disappears for hours or days, is isolated and threatened," she added.

Besides the curbs on press freedom, the participants said, the indifference of the state to the sanctity of press freedom is ironically often pushed by media practitioners affiliated with the state.

Al Jazeera’s Cairo Bureau Chief Hussein Abdel-Ghani said, "Authority in Egypt is a centralized one that does not want real freedom for a press that is separate from it. 25,000 people marched in 1909 for press freedom; today you don’t get that number for Gaza or price hikes."

Former newspaper editor and current talk show host Wael El-Ebrashy concurred, saying, "We failed in letting people know that the case for press freedom is a case that concerns the entire society, and is not specific to only those in the profession."

Ibrahim Mansour, Deputy-editor of Al-Dostour newspaper whose Chief Editor Ibrahim Eissa was given a jail sentence and then later pardoned by President Mubarak, said that a clear denunciation of press restraints was vital for the future.

"We are no longer waiting for presidential pardons or permission from the authorities to protect freedom of the press," he said. "These restraints must be completely removed."

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