An Egyptian court ordered the editor-in-chief of an independent newspaper critical of the Muslim Brotherhood to be detained pending trial, in a case seen as a benchmark for press freedom under President Mohamed Mursi.
Egyptian journalists and rights groups have described the prosecution of Al-Dostour’s Islam Afifi as the latest and most aggressive push by Islamists against what they say is biased media coverage. Afifi was ordered held in custody pending the resumption of his trial on Sept. 16 in Giza, the court said in a faxed statement. The decision prompted protests in the courtroom, the state-run Ahram Gate reported. Mursi later ordered the release of journalists held while awaiting trial, Mena reported.
Following the appointment of a Brotherhood member as information minister and the prosecution of a television anchor, the case has sparked concern that Mursi’s administration will replicate curbs on press freedom that were common under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
The court’s decision is “a huge surprise,” Afifi said in a phone interview from detention. “It’s unprecedented. I didn’t commit any crime and there was no risk of my fleeing. Where was I going to go? I’m already barred from traveling.”
“I’m worried about everything now -- my freedom as a journalist and my freedom as a citizen,” he said. “This is an old scenario that has been rehearsed before many times” under Mubarak. What’s happening now is an “attempt to silence the voice of freedom again.”
Mursi, the Brotherhood’s candidate for president, and Information Minister Salah Abdel-Maqsoud have promised to protect media freedom while stressing that journalists must be accurate and unbiased in their reporting.
Afifi was charged with publishing false information deemed insulting to Mursi, an offense that can carry a jail sentence of several years.
“This is a troubling and backward step that Egypt’s newly elected president should not be taking,” Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in an Aug. 16 statement. “We urge President Mursi to reverse this course immediately and demonstrate his commitment to press freedom.”
Another journalist, Tawfiq Okasha, who heads the Al-Faraeen satellite channel, faces charges of inciting violence against Mursi, and his station has been pulled from the air. Okasha was seen as close to the military council that ruled Egypt before handing over power to Mursi at the end of June.
The court’s order comes a day before several groups stage a mass rally against the Brotherhood. Some activist groups including the April 6 youth movement and the Revolution Youth Union are boycotting the protest, which they say has the backing of Mubarak supporters.
Mursi is struggling to restore order in a country whose economy is battered and population is still protesting almost daily over issues ranging from tainted water and power cuts to jobs and surging crime.
Investment Minister Osama Saleh told reporters at the Cabinet today that there is a plan to set up a council that will monitor satellite channels to ensure they are abiding by acceptable media practices and guidelines.