(photo credit: AP [file])
A Cairo court sentenced the editors of four outspoken tabloids to a year in prison for insulting President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling party, judicial officials said Thursday.
The editors, who all run a new generation of brash, tabloid style newspapers that have been pushing the boundaries of state press policy, will have to pay fines of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,500) as well as another 10,000 pounds (US$1,750) in bail to avoid the prison sentence during the appeals process, said a judicial official on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the press.
"My first reaction was surprise. The sentence is very harsh," said Adel Hammouda, editor of the weekly al-Fagr about his sentence. "The judge praised the president and his son and the ruling party while reading the verdict - it was unprecedented."
According to the judge, as quoted by the official Middle East News Agency, "the defendants failed to prove the authenticity of what they published and didn't present any proof (of their assertions) in their defense."
The articles in question included accusations that Egypt's ruling party is controlling the country with "iron and fire," slaughters its people and oppresses them and should be called "the party of disasters."
The other editors sentenced included Wael Ibrashi of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, Abdel Halim Qandil of the weekly al-Karama and Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the daily al-Dustour, who has been a lightning rod for government criticism.
The lawsuit, which was brought by a member of the ruling National Democratic Party against all four papers, is entirely separate from another case currently confronting Eissa about spreading rumors of the president's failing health.
President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for more than a quarter century and has no designated successor, resulting in periodic scares over his health and the future of the country.
Several opposition and independent newspapers published stories for several weeks last month speculating on the poor state of the president's health, with al-Dustour even contending that Mubarak sometimes lapses into a coma.
The editors described Thursday's verdict and Eissa's upcoming trial as a new crackdown on the freedom of the press after a brief period of relative openness.
Over the past three years, new private-owned newspapers have flourished in Egypt, including many with a breathless tabloid style and a relaxed approach to facts, and have siphoned readers away from the staid government dailies and their relentless diet of official, regime-approved news.
"The regime is retreating from its only bit of progress which was to give some freedom to the press to reflect public opinion," Hammouda said. "Now the whole thing is turning around."
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