CAIRO: Wael El-Ebrashi, editor-in-chief of independent Sawt El-Umma newspaper, will stand trial Sunday before the North Giza Criminal Court for charges of inciting public opinion against the new real estate tax bill.
Samar El-Dawi, a reporter for the newspaper, will also go on trial for similar charges.
On June 14, an appeal court had ordered El-Ebrashi and El-Dawi to appear before the criminal court to face legal proceedings for “inciting the public to disobey the law,” a charge included under article 177 of the penal code.
“This is the first time that this article is applied on a publishing case. It has only been adopted in prosecuting militant groups or secret organizations for charges like inciting disobedience and attempting to overthrow the regime,” El-Ebrashi told Daily News Egypt.
“This unprecedented incident is very serious. It means that any journalist is subject to face the same destiny,” Journalists’ Syndicate board member Abeer Saady argued.
If proven guilty, both journalists could be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison based on article 177.
“Our profession aims at resisting injustice. … We can never incite the people to break the law,” El-Ebrashi argued.
“Almost all Egyptians rejected the bill [even before the campaign]. We could not have had such a [a strong effect] on the people the way the minister described,” he added.
According to El-Ebrashi, President Hosni Mubarak himself stated in a public meeting two weeks after the campaign that the real estate property tax law had not been resolved yet and that it would consider social aspects.
The new real estate tax law triggered widespread controversy as soon as it was proposed in 2008.
In August 2009, Ghali announced that the tax would be imposed on some residential and commercial properties as of 2010.
Houses and apartments worth less than LE 500,000 are exempted from the tax, while the ones worth LE 1 million will be taxed LE 660 annually.
In his complaint before the attorney general, Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali accused El-Ebrashi of stirring up the public opinion against the tax law.
“Ghali and any other officials could have reacted to El-Ebrashi’s campaign in newspapers not at court,” Saady said.
Ghali claimed that the campaign led to a negative impact on the rate of submitted tax reports.
“[The finance minister] did announce once that the rates of presented reports had increased, which contradicts his complaint against us,” El-Ebrashi argued.
Nasser Amin, general director of Arab Center for the Independent of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, is optimistic about the destiny of El-Ebrashy and El-Dawi, though.
“The crime has two sides; the first has to do with the committed act, while the other is related to the [real] intent behind [the campaign],” Amin explained.
“El-Ebrashi is a prominent journalist who launched a campaign … that did not target the minister in person. … Rather he cares about the interests of the public,” Amin explained.
The court, according to Amin, may consider that El-Ebrashi’s intent behind the campaign was noble, with no personal interest.
“There is no criminal [side] in the case. That’s why [I believe] the court will acquit him,” Amin noted.
The worst case scenario, Amin added, can be suspended imprisonment verdicts against the two journalists.
El-Ebrashi is known for being an outspoken critic of the Egyptian government and regime as a journalist and a TV host.
He hosts a TV show on independent satellite channel Dream 2 TV named Al-Haqiqa (The Truth) where he has raised controversial issues on Egypt’s political and social scene.
El-Ebrashi had been subject to several other trials before.
In January 2009, the court decided to strike out a one-year jail term handed down against him and three other editors earlier in 2007 for “publishing false information that is likely to disturb the public order.”
El-Ebrashi and his colleagues were ordered to pay an LE 20,000 fine instead.
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 imprisonment sentences, though many of them are suspended.