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Viewing cable 09CAIRO180, JUDGE FINES FOUR EDITORS ON APPEAL, STRIKES PRISON

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09CAIRO180 2009-02-02 11:11 2011-02-16 21:09 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Cairo
VZCZCXRO0658
RR RUEHROV
DE RUEHEG #0180/01 0331140
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 021140Z FEB 09
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1510
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 CAIRO 000180 
 
SIPDIS 
 
FOR NEA/ELA AND DRL/NESCA 
NSC FOR PASCUAL 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/02/2029 
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KDEM EG
SUBJECT: JUDGE FINES FOUR EDITORS ON APPEAL, STRIKES PRISON 
TERMS 
 
 REF: A. 09 CAIRO 70 B. 08 CAIRO 2405 C. 08 CAIRO 2280 D. 08 CAIRO 2199 E. 08 CAIRO 2198 F. 08 CAIRO 2152 G. 07 CAIRO 3543 H. 07 CAIRO 2825 I. 04 CAIRO 1708 Classified By: ECPO Mincouns William R. Stewart for reason 1.4 (d).
1.(C) Summary and comment: On January 31, a Cairo appeals court upheld fines against four independent newspaper editors for publishing articles "insulting" senior ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) officials, but struck down the one-year prison sentences imposed in a September 2007 civil ruling. Human rights activists welcomed the judge striking the prison sentences, but criticized the fines as a tool of intimidation against the independent press and as legitimizing politically motivated cases. These observers asserted that the pattern of fines, not prison sentences, in recent media defamation cases is designed to intimidate journalists, while not embarrassing the regime. Human rights activists told us the decision highlights the need for reforming the laws regarding media defamation cases to rule out prison terms, codify moderate fines and require plaintiffs to prove specific damages. However, the government is resistant to reforms that would likely limit the leverage it wields over journalists. End summary and comment.

2.(C) On January 31, a Cairo appeals court upheld the September 2007 civil ruling against four independent editors-in-chief for "maliciously publishing false news regarding the NDP" and "insulting and libeling the president of the NDP and its figures and symbols," and fined them each LE 20,000 (3,600 USD). The court did not uphold the one-year prison sentences handed down in September 2007 against each of the four independent editors: Ibrahim Eissa of the daily "Al-Dostour," Adel Hamouda of the newspaper "Al-Fajr," Wael Al-Ibrashy of "Sawt Al-Umma" weekly, and Abdel Halim Kandeel, the former editor of "Al-Karamah" newspaper (refs D, G and H). (Note: Egyptian law allows judges to impose prison sentences in civil cases. End note.) The case was originally brought by two NDP-affiliated lawyers. Secretary-General of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights Hafez Abu Seada, who represented Eissa, asserted that the decision will threaten press freedom in Egypt by undermining the right of journalists to criticize the government. Abu Seada said that some of the editors may appeal the decision to the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest court for both civil and criminal appeals.

3.(C) Hossam Bahgat, Executive Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, commented that the judge's decision implements the regime's policy of chilling the independent media through consistent defamation cases that result in fines, while avoiding handing down prison sentences that would embarrass the GOE internationally. Bahgat pilloried the case as "bogus," asserting that the judge's upholding the 2007 ruling legitimizes the practice of NDP cronies bringing politically motivated cases against independent journalists. Bahgat also criticized the existing laws for not requiring plaintiffs to prove specific damages in defamation cases. He asked rhetorically why the regime continues to avoid amending the laws to raise the bar for proving defamation.

4.(C) Moataz El-Feigery, Executive Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, interpreted the decision as designed to intimidate independent journalists into tempering their criticism of the regime and the NDP. El-Feigery and Sayed Abdel-Hafez of the Moltaqa Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue both called for amending the penal code to rule out prison sentences for journalists convicted of defamation. Abdel-Hafez noted that while the judge in this case decided not to sentence the editors to prison or impose heavy fines, the law must be amended to constrict judges' wide range of options. (Note: Per ref I, in February 2004 President Mubarak announced that the penal code would be revised to rule out prison terms for journalists in defamation cases. Such a revision has not occurred. End note.) Negad Al-Borai of the USAID-funded NGO "The United Group" lambasted the decision as a "disaster" that will deeply influence the future of the independent press, and criticized the judge as a "tool of the regime's new strategy" of imposing fines, but not jail terms. CAIRO 00000180 002 OF 002

5.(C) Comment: The judge's decision continues a pattern of court and presidential decisions this past fall and winter of fining but not jailing journalists: Eissa for spreading false information about Mubarak's health (ref F), Adel Hamouda for depicting the Sheikh of Al-Azhar in papal robes (ref E), the Cairo News Company for transmitting footage of Mahalla protesters stomping on Mubarak's portrait (ref C), and even two pro-government papers for insulting a sheikh and a judge (ref A). The government appears to have settled on this middle ground as a strategy that sends a message to the media that personal criticism of government and religious figures is unacceptable, but does not attract unduly critical domestic or international attention. Contacts are correct that amending the laws to rule out prison terms for journalists, codify moderate fines and require plaintiffs to prove specific damages could depoliticize media defamation cases. However, the regime has not moved forward on these reforms, despite Mubarak's 2004 pledge to rule out prison terms, probably because it does not want to lose the leverage over journalists that the current legal ambiguity provides. SCOBEY