30. The future of press freedom in Egypt

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Angry reactions continue to be heard in intellectual circles regarding press freedom. The developments in the crisis of the 80-lash Fatwá issued by the grand imām of the Azhar, calls to abolish imprisonment in publishing-related cases, and the future of press in Egypt are the main subjects occupying Egyptian press this week.

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Echoes of the recent storm that rocked the Egyptian press market following the Shaykh of the Azhar’s statements about lashing rumor-mongers and untruthful reporters can still be heard among non-governmental journalists and opinion-makers [Reviewer: For more information on this subject see: AWR, 2007, week 42, art. 20].
In a desperate attempt to appease the situation with journalists, Dr. Muḥammad Sayyid Ṭanṭāwī, the grand Imām of the Azhar, affirmed his full respect and appreciation of the important role of journalists in developing the country. Quoted by Aḥmad Ṭal‘at in al-Ahrām of October 27, 2007, Dr. Ṭanṭāwī said during a field perambulation in al-Fayyūm that his statements were misinterpreted and misused by chaotic reporters.
Nevertheless, refutation of the grand Imām’s controversial ’Fatwá’ and criticism of his stance toward press freedom continued to occupy vast spaces in independent and opposition publications.
In a one-page article in al-Muṣawwar of October 27, 2007, Dr. ‘Abd al-Mu‘ṭī Bayyūmī, a prominent Muslim scholar, discussed the judgments of defamation in Islam. He explained that Qur’ānic verse, which the grand Imām used in his argument about the 80-lash punishment, does not speak about spreading false news, but rather about accusing honorable Muslim women of adultery.
Bayyūmī added that the consensus of Muslim scholars agreed that the verse in the Chapter of al-Nūr [The light] which reads: "And those who accuse honourable women but bring not four witnesses, scourge them (with) eighty stripes and never (afterward) accept their testimony - They indeed are evil-doers -." [24:4, the Meaning of the Glorious Qur’ān by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall] restricted the 80-lash punishment to the false accuser of a woman of committing adultery without providing four witnesses to attest to the wrongdoing.
Moreover, the Azhar’s Scholars Front [See: http://www.jabhaonline.org] tended to escalate its criticism against the Shaykh of the Azhar through a second official statement, in which the front demanded that all the members of the Islamic Research Academy [See: http://www.alazhar.org] resign as a result of their “shameful” support of Dr. Ṭanṭāwī’s ’Fatwá,’ wrote Ṣubḥī ‘Abd al-Salām in al-Dustūr of October 28, 2007.
‘Abd al-Salām quoted the front’s statements addressing members of the Islamic Research Academy as saying "God will never forgive you, and history will never forget this mistake. Apology will not save you from the consequences."
The statement also encouraged journalists, describing them as Mujāhidīn and defenders of God’s rights, and asked them to be patient until God punishes the ’wrongdoers.’
On the other hand, Muḥammad al-Bāz of al-Fajr wrote an article dated October 29, 2007, about the history of controversial Fatwás of the grand Imām of the Azhar. al-Bāz mentioned an 18-year old case that disturbed the public opinion at that time, in which important figureheads were involved including Dr. Ṭanṭāwī. al-Bāz asserted that Ṭanṭāwī, the then-Muftī of Egypt, was accused of releasing Fatwás in favor of an “influential” woman after the interference of an erstwhile minister in order for this woman to use it against her ex-husband.
In a relative respect, a number of newspapers refrained from writing about the aftermath of the grand Imām’s statements, and inclined to discuss the crisis of press freedom from wider perspectives.
Rose al-Yūsuf published a comprehensive interview with the outstanding Egyptian historian Dr. Yūnān Labīb Rizq on October 25, 2007. Dr. Rizq warned about the gloomy future of press freedom, linking between the spread of tabloids and the deteriorating relations between journalists and the regime. He added that ’abusive’ journalists form the greatest danger to journalism.
As for Khālid Imām, editor-in-chief of al-Masā’, he deemed the “weakened” Journalists’ Syndicate as responsible for the remarkable violations of the journalistic code of ethics by some journalists.
The opposition al-Wafd daily devoted a full page interview for four consecutive days to discuss the future of journalism in Egypt.
On October 24, 2007, al-Wafd discussed the crisis with Dr. Rif‘at al-Sa‘īd, head of al-Tajammuc Party, who accused the National Democratic Party of attempting to assassinate the freedom of press through enacting regulations that tightened the grip around journalists.
On October 25 and 26, 2007, the paper published a two-episode interview with Counselor Ṭāriq al-Bishrī, a former deputy-president of the State Council, and head of the General Society for Fatwá and Legislation. al-Bishrī believed that the whole atmosphere in Egypt leads to a massive decline in all aspects of life. He deemed the ruling “elite” responsible for all the crises in Egypt.

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