CAIRO: Wael El-Ebrashi, editor-in-chief of independent Sawt El-Umma newspaper, will stand trial on July 18 at the Giza Criminal Court for charges of inciting the public against a new tax bill.
Journalist Samar Al-Dawy was also transferred to the criminal court for similar charges.
In his complaint before the attorney general, Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali accused El-Ebrashy of stirring up the public opinion against the real estate property tax law.
“As is the case with 90 percent of cases against journalists, the reason behind this one is political not legal,” Arabic Human Rights Information Network Director Gamal Eid told Daily News Egypt.
“El-Ebrashy played his [expected] role as a journalist and presented the society’s opinion. Yet, unfortunately because he is an independent journalist, his destiny is in court,” Eid, also a lawyer, added.
El-Ebrashy said during his interrogation in February that he revised all stories himself before being published in his capacity as the newspaper editor.
On Jan. 9, Al-Dawy launched a press campaign entitled: “Sawt El-Umma calls on you to take part in its campaign to boycott the real estate bill … Send us powers of attorney to legally protect you … We will not present our [tax] reports … and we will not pay the … tax.”
“We [wrote] what the people [thought] in a journalistic and professional manner when we [dedicated] the newspaper pages for lawyers, constitutional law experts, politicians, intellectuals and [citizens] to express their stance towards a tax related to one of the most important parts of life, housing,” El-Ebrashi said in his defense.
El-Ebrashi continued the campaign against all the odds.
In an editorial published following the complaint, he wrote: “I will not be exaggerating if I say that [a person’s] house is a microcosm of his homeland … a citizen’s sense of belonging will be weakened if he does not have a home.”
“This is the home that … Minister Ghali does not know how sensitive it is for Egyptians to the extent that he threatened [taxpayers] saying ‘whoever cannot pay the tax should sell his house and buy a cheaper one,’” El-Ebrashi wrote.
“Ghali engaged himself in the most dangerous area related to people’s lives,” he added.
El-Ebrashi warned against a possible public uprising “if the tax was to be imposed by force.”
“When people feel that the laws imposed on them are unfair, they have to [resort to] civil disobedience,” said Mahmoud Askalany, journalist and head of Citizens against the High Cost of Living Movement.
“Bills are enacted without referring to the people first,” he added.
The new real estate tax bill triggered widespread controversy as soon as it was proposed in 2008.
In August 2009, Ghali announced that the tax would be applied on residential and commercial properties as of 2010.
Houses and apartments valued at less than LE 500,000 are exempt from the tax, while the ones worth LE 1 million will be taxed LE 660 annually.
Last month, editors of independent Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Youm Al-Sabe’ newspapers were interrogated by the prosecution for publishing the details of a major bribery case in which a high-profile businessman and two State Council counselors were involved.
In February 2004, President Hosni Mubarak promised to abolish jail terms for journalists in publishing cases.
However, the promise has yet to see the light. Since then several journalists have been taken to court and handed down prison sentences, though many of them are suspended.
“Referring a journalist to a criminal court proves that we were wrong when we thought that the fight for freedom of expression was over,” Journalists’ Syndicate Board member Abeer Saady told Daily News Egypt.