U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ over threats to free speech in Egypt

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The United States on Monday expressed concern over defamation charges brought against two Egyptian journalists critical of the President and called on the government to condemn actions that stifle freedom of expression.

“We are deeply concerned by the growing trend of efforts to punish and deter political expression in Egypt,” said Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, just ahead of the first anniversary of the election of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi.

“Numerous individuals, including journalists, bloggers and activists have been detained, and some are being charged and put on trial for allegedly defaming government figures,” Ventrell said.

Public Prosecutor Talaat Ibrahim, appointed by Mursi in November, ordered the criminal trial of Magdi El Galad, editor in chief of El-Watan newspaper, and Alaa El-Ghatrify, its managing editor, state newspaper Al-Ahram reported.

El-Watan is fiercely critical of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that has dominated Egypt since former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in political protests in 2011.

Ventrell said such charges were a "step backward" for Egypt's democratic transition and urged Egyptian authorities to speak out against such actions.

“Such charges do not conform to Egypt's international obligations, do not reflect international standards regarding freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, particularly in a democratic society, and represent a step backward for Egypt's democratic transition,” he said.

Ventrell said the United States had made clear its concerns privately to Egyptian officials. “Part of the issue here is that some of this is being dealt through the judicial branch, but we are calling on the government themselves to make a statement,” he added.

During his campaign for the presidency last year, Mursi committed himself to guaranteeing media freedoms, promising not to “prevent anyone from writing.”

But over the last few months several journalists, talk-show hosts and comedians in Egypt have been charged with defamation, and activists accuse the government of using the courts to crackdown on dissent.

Lawyer and human rights advocate Gamal Eid said there had been four times more complaints for "insults against the president" in the first 200 days of Mursi's administration than in all the 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's rule.

The most celebrated case is that of wildly popular Bassem Youssef - whose weekly political satire program Al-Bernameg (‘the program’) has spared few public figures from merciless critique.

Youssef is currently on bail pending investigation into charges of insulting Mursi and Islam. He spoke at this month’s Arab Media Forum in Dubai, where he launched a vigorous defense of the the role of satire in society.

The president has said complaints against Youssef have come from “citizens” who find his humor objectionable, and not from his office.