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Egypt’s Mursi Bars Detaining Journalists Awaiting Trial

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi
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. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi issued a decree barring the detention of journalists awaiting trial, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported, citing presidential spokesman Yasser Ali.

In response to Mursi’s action yesterday, Egypt’s public prosecutor ordered the release of Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Al-Dostour, MENA reported, citing Deputy Prosecutor General Adel el-Saeed. He was freed late yesterday, the Associated Press reported.

Egyptian journalists and rights groups have described the prosecution of Afifi, whose newspaper has been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a benchmark of press freedom under Mursi and the most aggressive action by Islamists against what they portray as biased media coverage.

Afifi was earlier ordered to be held in custody pending the resumption of his trial Sept. 16 in Giza. The decision prompted protests in the courtroom, the state-run Ahram Gate reported.

With 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 to hold him was “a huge surprise,” Afifi said in a phone interview while he was in 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.”

‘Old Scenario’

“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, he said, is an “attempt to silence the voice of freedom again.”

Mursi, who was the Brotherhood’s candidate for president, and Information Minister Salah Abdel-Maqsoud have promised to protect media freedom while saying journalists must be accurate and unbiased in their reporting.

Afifi is charged with publishing false information deemed insulting to Mursi, an offense that can carry a jail sentence of several years.

‘Troubling, Backward’

“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.

Investment Minister Osama Saleh told reporters at the Cabinet yesterday 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.

Mursi is struggling to restore order in a country whose economy is battered and population is protesting almost daily over such problems as tainted water, power cuts, jobs and surging crime.

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