Mubarak slams reports about his health as 'inciting chaos'

Amnesty describes trial against editors who published remarks on president as "part of a series of attacks against free press."

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September 15, 2007 01:29
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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday slammed recent media reports about his allegedly poor health and said they aim to provoke chaos and destabilize national security. Mubarak, 79, called on journalists to "rise above insignificant things" - a reference to speculations about his health and slurs about his leadership. For several weeks in August, several opposition and independent newspapers here published stories claiming Mubarak's health was poor. On Thursday, a state court sentenced editors of four outspoken tabloids to a year in prison for defaming Mubarak and his ruling party. In another pending lawsuit, the editor of daily al-Dustour, Ibrahim Eissa, faces charges of spreading rumors about the president's failing health. Mubarak has ruled Egypt for more than a quarter century but has no designated successor, although many believe his son Gamal is being groomed for power - a prospect that has raised widespread opposition. The president's remarks Friday came in an interview with the weekly Al-Osboa, excerpts of which were carried by Egypt's official Middle East News Agency. Friday's comments were the first time Mubarak made a reference to the media reports on his ill-health, although he has stepped up public appearances lately. First lady Suzanne Mubarak said last month in a rare television appearance that her husband is healthy and said journalists who published reports contending he was ailing deserve to be punished. Mubarak described reports about his health as "a baseless rumors" that target the nation's security. "The ignorance of some (writers) of the facts and (their) going too far in publishing lies and false information, is an issue that has nothing to do with the freedom of press but aims at causing chaos," Mubarak was quoted as saying. He described the tabloid reports as "overstepping proper boundaries." The four editors were convicted of insulting the president. They were also tried for criticizing various public figures, including the president, prime minister, interior minister and the president's son. In addition to the one-year sentence which they can appeal, they have to pay a fine up to 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,500). They were also required to pay an additional 10,000 pounds (US$1,750) to avoid jail during the appeals process. The editors included al-Dustour's Eissa, Adel Hammouda of the weekly al-Fagr, Wael Ibrashi of the weekly Sawt al-Umma and Abdel Halim Qandil of the weekly al-Karama. Also Friday, leading international rights groups accused Egypt of stifling press freedoms. Amnesty International described the editors' trial as "part of a continuous series of attacks against free press in Egypt" and called on the government to revise a 2006 law that prohibits insulting public officials. Reporters Without Borders said journalists known for being critical of the government were targeted. "We are witnessing a crackdown on independent publications which had enjoyed a relative respite in recent years," the group said in a press release. Mubarak stressed that press freedoms were not stifled but that "everyone who violates the journalism's covenant of honor or puts the nation's safety in peril" must be punished. 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. Al-Dustour carried front-page stories for several days, including one that contended Mubarak sometimes lapses into comas. Eissa's trial is set to begin Oct. 1. He could face up to three years in prison if convicted. In 2006, he was already sentenced to a year in prison for libeling Mubarak, but an appeals court reduced the sentence to a US$4,000 fine.

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