CAIRO // Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of the opposition newspaper Al Destour, was sentenced to two months in prison yesterday after an appeals court upheld a guilty verdict against him for publishing stories questioning the president's health, which at the time triggered a national controversy over press freedom in Egypt.
Eissa, who was originally sentenced to six months by a lower court in March, was charged with spreading "false information ?damaging the public interest and national stability", and had faced up to three years in prison for the stories, which were published in August last year. "This verdict has opened the doors of hell anew for Egyptian journalists," Eissa said yesterday after the verdict. "Imprisoning journalists takes us back to square one, where the presidential institution is untouchable.
"They are taking us back to past taboos and robbing us of the freedom we gained since the 2005 presidential elections and the short [boost in] democracy [that followed]." Rights groups were quick to condemn the verdict. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said in a statement, "the prison sentence was expected to take revenge from Eissa, as one of the most important journalists who criticises the performance of the Egyptian government, its suppression, and the corruption that has proliferated it".
The statement said the verdict "is an attempt to destroy press freedom in Egypt" and expressed its support for "the brave journalist who chose to pay with his personal freedom for the freedom of expression". Makram Mohammed Ahmed, the head of the press syndicate, appealed to the general prosecutor and the interior minister not to rescind Eissa's conviction. Eissa, 42, was not in the court yesterday when Judge Hazem Wagih, of Boulak Abu El Ela Appeals Court, ordered him to be jailed for two months for publishing rumours about the health of Hosni Mubarak, the president, last year.
Like other newspapers, Al Destour had published reports questioning the health of the president last August, even suggesting he was prone to falling in and out of comas. Mr Wagih, the judge, said the articles, published over a series of days in August, caused investors to withdraw their money from the country, the stock market to collapse and the economy to lose US$350 million (Dh2.36 billion). "[Eissa] reported false news, with malintent, about the president's health, which he knew was fabricated," Mr Wagih said.
This is not the first time Eissa has been prosecuted; he was one of four Egyptian editors sentenced to one year in jail and fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh13,500) last September for defaming Mr Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party. The editors avoided going to jail by paying the fine, though the trial will resume on Oct 4. In 2006, Eissa was sentenced to a year in prison for libel against Mr Mubarak. An appeals court later reduced the sentence to a $4,000 fine.
His paper, Al Destour, which comprises views from across the political spectrum, only started publishing again in 2005 after being shut down in 1998 by the government for printing a statement by an Islamist group threatening Coptic Christian businessmen in Egypt. "Two months is just the beginning," Eissa said. "There are 23 cases ongoing cases against me. I'm sure they will make me serve time in prison in some of them.
"This is just the beginning of going back to imprisoning journalists." Gamal Fahmy, a columnist with the leftist weekly Al Arabi, who spent six months in prison in 1998 for defaming the then deputy of the upper house of Parliament, said the verdict was "a serious and new aggression on the freedom of the press and expression". He said it was ominous for other journalists facing restricted freedoms and referred to an upcoming case involving Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Islam's highest Sunni institute.
Sheikh Tantawi is suing the editor of the independent weekly Al Fagr for publishing last year an animated picture of him wearing the Vatican Papal rope, with a cross hanging at his chest, after he had received an invitation to visit the Vatican. Despite condemnations from journalists and appeals by others, including Mr Ahmed of the press syndicate, to drop the case, Sheikh Tantawi told a syndicate delegation: "If earth turns upside down, I won't drop the case."
The verdict in this case is expected on Oct 11. Mr Fahmy said such restrictions on the press were "proof and [a] reminder of the police dictator state we're living in". "I wonder how jailing journalists will help the government who failed in everything," he said. "The rash regime is abusing the judiciary to chase and settle accounts with its opposition, its pathetic. "The irony, is that Mubarak himself promised four years ago to repeal the law that allows sending journalists to prison, another evidence of the false promises of this regime."
Mr Mubarak, has ruled Egypt since Oct 1981. He has no vice- president or successor, but it is widely believed his son, Gamal, 44, is being groomed for power, which the opposition opposes. Both Mr Mubarak and his son deny any plans for the inheritance of power. Eissa said he has "no regrets" about what he has published and said he would continue to rely on his family for support. "My family are heroes, and my wife is a great woman," he said.