CAIRO, Egypt—Workers at 25 Egyptian newspapers went on strike Sunday as the legislature in Cairo appeared ready to approve a law that leaves journalists more vulnerable to fines and jail time for critical reports on the finances and behavior of government officials.
About 200 Egyptian journalists gathered in front of the parliament building to draw attention to the clampdown on the opposition media, which they described as another example of the government backsliding on reforms promised by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The president's ruling party appears to have the votes necessary to make the bill law; a vote is expected at Monday's session.
"It will shut mouths and break pens," said Sahar Ramadan, a journalist from the al-Wafd opposition paper who attended the rally. "Criminals will remain on the streets while journalists go to jail."
Egypt, a close U.S. ally in the Middle East and the recipient of $2 billion in American aid every year, won praise from the Bush administration last year for allowing the first contested presidential elections and showing other tentative signs of democratic reform. In recent months, however, the leader has drawn international condemnation for violent clashes between his forces and pro-reform activists, and the mass arrests of opposition figures.
During his re-election campaign last year, the 78-year-old Mubarak had vowed to abolish a law under which journalists faced prison sentences and fines in defamation cases. Emboldened by the promise, Egyptian journalists became far more daring in their coverage of the government in the past year. They reported on alleged election fraud, corruption cases involving senior Egyptian officials and opened—or reopened—a number of independent or opposition dailies and weeklies.
Egyptian journalists contend those changes are in jeopardy now that the majority of legislators appear to be in favor of a law that threatens reporters with $5,000 fines and imprisonment for up to two years for reports linked to the finances of public figures, criticism of public institutions and "offending" Egypt's leadership.
The law protects journalists from prosecution in defamation cases, the protesters said, but it added a new list of offenses that could land reporters behind bars.
Twenty-five of Cairo's most venerable papers called a one-day strike and did not print Sunday editions in protest. Pro-government legislators could not be reached for comment Sunday evening. The government-backed Akhbar newspaper quoted majority leader Abdulahad Gamal el-Din as saying, "the constitution has always appreciated the press and the new law has granted the press even more freedom and guarantees."
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist opposition group that's officially banned but generally tolerated by the government, joined in the calls to block the bill. The group's leadership said its 88 members of the legislature were prepared to vote against the new press law introduced by Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.
Like Islamist groups in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan and other parts of the Middle East, the Brotherhood is widely viewed by Egyptians as a force working against government corruption, cronyism and misuse of public funds. The bolder Egyptian press that emerged in the past year was a powerful tool for exposing such allegations, Brotherhood supporters said.
"This is a setback from the president's campaign platform," said Hamdy Hassan, a spokesman for the Brotherhood's legislative bloc. "The government uses its majority in parliament to pass laws that are to their own benefit. They brought on a law that protects corruption."
Egyptian journalists point to the law as a harbinger of a more restricted press. Already, the cases of two well-known media figures have drawn condemnation from international media rights advocates.
Ibrahim Issa, the editor of the independent weekly al-Dustour, received a fine and a yearlong prison sentence on charges of insulting the president and harming public security. His paper had reported on a lawsuit that accused Mubarak of mismanagement and waste of foreign aid. He is free on bail pending an appeal of his sentence.
In a separate case, the editor of another independent weekly, Sowt al-Umma, was accused of publishing information on judges allegedly involved with fraud during last year's parliamentary elections. Court proceedings against the editor, Wael el-Ebrashi, are scheduled to resume in September.
"With each investigation, with each report, we expect to land in jail," Ebrashi said at the demonstration Sunday. "We came to announce the death of political reform."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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