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Former culture minister, 3 journalists referred to court for insulting judiciary

Egypt’s public prosecutor has referred former Culture Minister Gaber Asfour, and three journalists from the privately owned Al-Bawaba newspaper to the criminal court for insulting the public prosecution.

The three journalists included Al-Bawaba’s chief editor Mohamed al-Baz, as well as two reporters, Nedal Mamdouh and Mohamed Hamdy, who face additional charges of impersonating journalists.

In an interview with Mada Masr, Baz said that the Supreme Judicial Council filed the lawsuit against them and Asfour. The prosecution had previously referred the case to the Misdemeanour Court, which rejected it on the grounds that it does not fall under its jurisdiction. Subsequently, the prosecution referred the case to the criminal court.

According to Baz, the case dates back to March, when Al-Bawaba published comments made by Asfour about the puclic prosecution. During a lecture held in the Supreme Council for Culture in March of this year, Asfour spoke about the case of novelist Ahmed Naji, who was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of violating public decency. The former culture minister, who testified in favor of Naji during his trial, described the prosecution’s argument against the novelist as “more extremist than the terrorist organization ISIS.”

“We covered the lecture and published Asfour’s comments, and we presented a recording of the lecture to prosecution to prove that what we published in our report is correct,” Baz said, “but the prosecution did not take this evidence into consideration.”

According to the prosecution’s accusations, which were published by the Saudi-owned, London-based Al-Hayat newspaper on Monday, the former minister and three journalists “insulted the judicial authority by describing public prosecution’s argument in a case as ‘more extremist than the terrorist organization ISIS,’ during a speech by the first defendant during a public event. This was published by two of the defendants in Al-Bawaba newspaper under the headline: The prosecution’s rhetoric is more extremist than ISIS.”

Both Mamdouh and Hamdy face additional accusations of impersonating journalists, as they were not members of the Journalists Syndicate.

According to Baz the prosecution itself has no right to level this charge against journalists. Only the syndicate is entitled to bring members of the press before the prosecution on these accusations. He added that the charge of impersonating journalists could be dropped if the syndicate submits a request to the court, stating “the bigger problem is the charge of insulting the judiciary, because any jail sentence is mandatory and cannot be substituted with fines.”

Journalists Syndicate board member Khaled al-Balshy, however, told Mada Masr that he and the syndicate’s lawyer attended investigations of the journalists twice, and proved that both journalists practice journalism, even if they are not members of the syndicate. He reaffirmed:“The only entity entitled to press such a charge is the syndicate, and the syndicate has proved that they are journalists, so this charge should be dropped.”

A number of journalists have faced such accusations in the past, but in most cases syndicate intervention usually led to charges being dropped. In one case Ahmed Ramadan, a photojournalist from the privately owned Al-Tahrir newspaper, was arrested while reporting on the trial of former President Mohamed Morsi. However, when Balshy attended the interrogation with him the charges were immediately dropped.

The charge of impersonating journalists is being increasingly used to put further pressure on press freedoms, Balshy asserted. The syndicate’s membership requirements stipulate that prospective members must have previously practiced journalism, which means that it is very normal to find journalists who do not have a membership card.

“In this case, both the syndicate and the newspaper have fully acknowledged that both journalists really practice journalism. Of course the syndicate’s membership rules need to be changed, but the use of this charge should end,” Balshy stated. He added that “many new newspapers hire journalists who are not members of the syndicate. The syndicate only pursued this charge on two occasions, when people were really not journalists.”

Asfour, Hamdy and Mamdouh were unavailable for comment. Asfour told Al-Hayat that he knows nothing of his referral to court, but he was summoned for interrogation in March, when he claimed that the newspaper fabricated his comments.

The original Al-Bawaba article is not available on the newspaper’s website, but a photo of the print version was included a report published in March by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). In the report, Asfour is quoted as saying: “The judicial rhetoric, especially by the public prosecution, is as extremist as the terrorist organization ISIS.” Another paragraph attributes the following statement to him: “The judge issued his ruling based on his religious dogma, not the law, as one judge acquitted him [Naji], and the other jailed him.”

Baz considers this is a serious case. He told Mada Masr: “We did not publish false information, it is merely an issue of press freedom and freedom of expression. Asfour, Egypt’s former culture minister and a pillar of the cultural scene, expressed his opinion which the newspaper then published. The Journalists Syndicate and rights organizations have to support us in this case.”

In a similar incident, CEO of the privately owned Al-Dostour newspaper Rida Edward, its chief editor Saad Mohamed Wahba and journalist Hussein Mahmoud all received three-month prison sentences and LE20,000 fines for “inciting the publication of articles that insult the Interior Ministry.” The sentence, however, is not yet final.