CAIRO, Egypt Nearly all 20 of Egypt's independent newspapers and magazines will launch a strike on Sunday to protest a new law that journalists say will kill the remnants of the country's free press.
The legislation, to be debated Sunday by the people's assembly, represents a rollback of the country's already restrictive press laws, a stinging irony in light of President Mubarak's pledges last year to remove sentences from the legal code that have resulted in the jailing of opposition journalists. In the last five years, Egypt has allowed more publications to compete with the state-funded newspapers and magazines that dominate the press here.
The new press restrictions are the latest in a broader set of reversals in political freedoms presided over by the Mubarak regime, beginning with the failure in April of the final appeal against a jail sentence by Mr. Mubarak's liberal opponent in the September presidential election.
In the last five months, the regime has reneged on its promise to reconsider or rescind the emergency laws that established domestic military courts and gave the state authority to detain citizens without charge.
A government measure to give greater autonomy to the judiciary which threatened its own strike this spring also has failed.
In addition, riot police have let demonstrators know that their tolerance for protests has run out.
A member of the press syndicate's leadership council, Gamal Fahmy, said yesterday that the message of the one-day strike was: "There is no hope of reforming this regime." Mr. Fahmy added, "This law means that these newspapers could be suspended forever. That is why we are suspending publication for one day."
Particularly troubling in the proposed legislation are new categories of offenses that could trigger the closure of newspapers not funded by the state. While the legislation would remove the existing one-year jail sentence for libeling public officials, it would be illegal to "undermine the integrity" of public officials a clause that would make it impossible for newspapers to cover public corruption without fear of a hefty fine.
"This means simply farewell to writing about corruption," the executive editor of Sawt Al-Ummah, Wael al-Ibrashy, said. Mr. Ibrashy's newspaper published a story in April about a lawyer who filed a lawsuit against Mr. Mubarak and his family for looting the country, earning the article's editor and reporter one-year jail sentences under the old press libel law for insulting the Egyptian president.
Last year, Mr. Ibrashy published interviews with two Egyptian judges who said cheating by the ruling party undermined the November parliamentary elections. The judges were later charged with insulting the integrity of the courts.
Mr. Ibrashy said that under the new law, his newspaper could not write about Mamdouh Ismail, the owner of a passenger ferry that sank in January because it was poorly maintained. "Under this law, he can sue all the newspapers that said he was corrupt and worked with other public officials to do this, even if he is convicted later on of corruption," he said.
A section of the law also would prohibit coverage of the private lives of public officials, making it impossible, Mr. Ibrashy said, to report on many of the deals between parliamentarians and businessmen.
Defaming foreign officials also would be illegal, which worries Mr. Ibrashy: "Let's say the Americans or other Westerners are sane enough not to pursue the journalist. What happens when the target is a Saudi or Libyan official? And there is a precedent. Muammar Gadhafi has sued many journalists," he said.
Not all of Egypt's independent journalists are endorsing the strike, however.
"This is a kind of negative and weak opposition. If you want to change something, you change it with your pen and paper," the editor in chief of the Wafd Party's newspaper, Anwar Hawary, said. "My opinion is, we keep on writing even if we have to go to jail until we get what we want."
(Mr. Hawary was overruled, however, and the Wafd Party voted yesterday to participate in the strike.)
It is likely the new press legislation will become law next week, as opposition parties in the people's assembly make up only 120 of the 454 votes.
Hamdi Hassan, a spokesman for the largest opposition bloc, the 88 Muslim Brotherhood members of parliament, said his Islamist party would fight the press law.
"We are against the incarceration of journalists. We hope that as a method of fighting entrenched corruption, we have full cooperation between opposition, brotherhood, and independent members of parliament. We will try as hard as we can to block this law," he said. "We are a conservative organization and we want to protect values. But we think those values should be guarded by the press syndicate and not by the jails."
All told, 20 publications are participating in the strike.