Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard wrote last week to US President Barack Obama about the frequent violations of free expression in Egypt, where Obama is due to arrive later today and deliver a major speech tomorrow on the US relationship with the Arab world.
Noting that “you have often indicated that your presidency will be marked by a commitment to human rights,” the 29 May letter urges him to raise the issue of press freedom during his stay in Cairo.
The letter pointed out that in Egypt a total of 32 articles in different laws – including the criminal code, the press law, the publications law, the law on state documents (which forbids journalists to access certain official documents), the civil service law and the political parties law – stipulate penalties for the media. And when a press case comes before the courts, the authorities are allowed to choose the judge who tries it.
An average of one lawsuit affecting free expression is brought before Egypt’s courts every day – lawsuits against newspapers, journalists, websites and bloggers, the letter said. It cited the example of blogger Kareem Amer, who was sentenced to four years in prison on 22 February 2007 on charges of “inciting hatred of Islam” and “insulting” President Hosni Mubarak in his blog. He also criticized Egypt’s leading religious institutions such as the Sunni university of Al-Azhar, where he studied law.
“We therefore feel that you cannot visit Egypt without mentioning the need to repeal the state of emergency, free Kareem Amer, decriminalise press offences and withdraw the Internet regulation bill,” the letter said. “We recall that on 1 May, you voiced your support and admiration for ‘all those brave men and women of the press who labour to expose truth and enhance accountability around the world’.”
The letter added: “As we said in our 17 February letter to you, the consistency and credibility of US foreign policy will depend on your administration’s ability to demonstrate the same vigilance in relations with your partners and allies.”
Egypt is ranked 146th out of 173 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Egypt’s minister of communications and information technology, Tarek Mohamed Kamel, was recently added to the Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom” because of the measures taken by his ministry to restrict online free expression.
Read the Reporters Without Borders letter