(photo credit: AP [file])
A government prosecutor plans to question the editor of a prominent independent newspaper about his paper's recent reports on the health of the country's 79-year-old leader, President Hosni Mubarak, a judiciary official said Tuesday.
The move comes amid concerted state media efforts in recent days to dispel speculation that the president's health is poor. Earlier this week, first lady Suzanne Mubarak said in a rare television appearance that her husband is healthy, and said she believes journalists who published reports contending he was ailing deserve to be punished.
"The president's health is excellent, and his activities are continuing and are not on hold," Suzanne Mubarak told the satellite channel Al-Arabiya on Sunday.
"Frankly, I feel sad as a citizen, not as a president's wife. There must be punishment either for a journalist, a televised program or a newspaper that publishes the rumors," she said.
Over the past two weeks, several opposition and independent newspapers have published stories speculating about Mubarak's health. The independent tabloid Al Dustour carried front-page stories for several days, including one that contended Mubarak somtimes lapses into comas.
The government shot back, accusing Al Dustour's editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Essa, of spreading rumors that could harm the country.
A judicial official said Tuesday that Essa would be questioned by a state security prosecutor Wednesday about allegations that he had spread false rumors "causing a public disturbance and harming Egypt's economy." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for more than a quarter century, is known to have some knee, ear and back problems, but he has appeared generally healthy in recent public appearances.
Photos of him touring an industrial zone were published last week in Egypt's main state-owned newspapers, and the images of the president also ran on Egyptian TV.
Mubarak has no designated successor, but his son Gamal's swift rise through the ruling party has fed speculation that the way is being paved for a hereditary succession, something that worries Egyptians.
To quell the health rumors, Mubarak himself, in an interview published Friday in the pro-government Al-Ahram newspaper, accused "illegitimate movements" of being behind the rumors - a reference to Egypt's most powerful opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef denied the allegation.
On Monday, the government-controlled Press Supreme Council, which issues licenses to newspapers, also said it had formed two commissions of media experts and legal consultants to evaluate press coverage of Mubarak's health and decide what legal measures should be taken.
That announcement, along with Mubarak's comments and the accusations against Essa, have led to concerns that the government might take steps to curtail the press here, which has enjoyed relatively more freedom in recent years.
Essa said he fears he will be thrown in jail and his newspaper shut down. Al Dustour previously was closed seven years by the government, beginning in the late 1990s, after it published a statement by an Islamist group that threatened Coptic Christian businessmen in Egypt.
"When a political regime reaches its end, it turns into a monster," Essa told The Associated Press on Tuesday.