- An Egyptian journalist has been sentenced in absentia to two years of prison for defaming a Minister, claiming he gave a false testimony. The journalist reportedly is hiding until Egypt's new criminal code - excluding prison terms for media offences - is approved in parliament.
Ahmed Ezzedine, a correspondent with the weekly 'Al-Ousbou', yesterday was given a two-year prison sentence for defamation. The Egyptian journalist was not present during the court case against him and was sentenced in absentia.
Mr Ezzedine was found guilty of defaming Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister Youssef Wali by accusing him of "false testimony" in an article published in 'Al-Ousbou' on 23 June last year.
Rumour has it that he has gone into hiding and will remain there until the criminal code reform bill has been submitted to parliament and adopted. For the time being, he cannot appeal against yesterday's conviction because - as it stands - the law requires immediate imprisonment even in the event of an appeal.
An end to prison sentences for journalists under the criminal code was one of the sweeping changes announced by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on 23 February in an apparent bid to head off US plans to impose democratic reforms on the Middle East. Egypt is the US' main Arab ally in the region.
President Mubarak also recently claimed that Egypt enjoyed "total" press freedom. He said this in an interview with the French daily 'Le Monde' on 21 April this year, while on an official visit to Paris.
The French media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today strongly condemned the prison sentence handed down Mr Ezzedine. "We are dismayed by the severity of this sentence after President Mubarak announced that journalists would no longer be jailed," the group said in a statement.
Mr Ezzedine's imprisonment, if it goes ahead, "will mean that the reforms proclaimed on high have been dangerously put on hold," the RSF statement said. "We ask the authorities to reconsider and suspend this verdict pending a vote in parliament," the group added.
Egyptian authorities have traditionally been notorious violators of basic press freedom principles. Despite of this fact, the press environment in Egypt is one of the most vibrant in the entire Middle East and North Africa region.
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