The case against Islam Afifi has sparked an outcry from journalists and intellectuals who view the lawsuit as an attack on free speech similar to the types of legal manoeuvring used by the former regime of authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a last year’s popular uprising, to silence its opponents.
Afifi, who is the editor-in-chief of the el-Dustour newspaper owned by the leader of the opposition Wafd Party, has been charged with slandering the president and harming public interest with inflammatory articles. He had already been banned from travelling abroad.
A Cairo court on Thursday ordered Afifi to remain in jail pending trial in September. Hours after the court’s decision, President Mohammed Morsi issued a law that bans imprisoning journalists for media-related charges until court verdicts are handed down.
Afifi, who still faces trial, was photographed smiling and being greeted by newspaper staff after his release late on Thursday.
The decree affecting those awaiting trial for offences such as libel, defamation and slander is the first law Morsi has issued since assuming legislative powers earlier this month in the absence of a parliament, and following a decision to retire a cadre of generals with whom he had shared powers.
Morsi, who is a member of the Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, became the country’s first freely elected civilian president in late June.
Since Morsi took office, el-Dustour has regularly published articles warning of alleged Brotherhood plots and conspiracies to turn Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state.
It also promoted an anti-Brotherhood demonstration on Friday, initially calling for the torching of Brotherhood offices but later amending its call and instead urging protesters to hold peaceful rallies in Cairo.
The protests on Friday against the Brotherhood were small, but seen as a significant test of how Morsi will respond to the opposition.
The case against Afifi is one of several lawsuits brought forward mainly by Islamists against journalists in Egypt, accusing them of inflammatory coverage and inciting the public against the Brotherhood.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists hailed the law issued by Morsi, but urged authorities to halt “an alarming rise in repression that has included newspaper confiscations, criminal prosecutions, and assaults against journalists”. – AP