CAIRO: As the court finally decided on a six-month prison penalty with labor and a fine of LE 20,000 to Al-Jazeera producer Howayda Taha because of her documentary on police brutality “Wara El Shams, journalists and media experts have expressed distinct reactions on the case.
Yehia Kallash, the secretary general of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate (EJS), condemned the court’s final decision and considered it a severe undermining of journalism as a profession.
“The concept of prison penalties in publishing offenses should not exist at all. Although we [the EJS] succeeded in removing seven articles that would imprison journalists from the press law last July, there are still 11 other articles that impose such penalties on reporters. The case of Howayda Taha urges us to work hard on eliminating those remaining articles and strongly condemning them, Kallash told The Daily Star Egypt.
He said that almost all articles of the Egyptian law are vague and can have various interpretations. “The problem lies in the improper formation of the law. The explanation of ‘harming national interest,’ which was the charge against Taha, can differ from one person to another. It does not have one definite standard meaning according to which the court can issue a decision, said Kallash.
Kallash said that in her documentary, Taha was able to unveil a regular crime that occurs in Egyptian police stations without making fabrications. He added that she used the standard methods while shooting the documentary.
He said that there are two main aspects that have to consider while discussing freedom of the press.
“The first is that freedom of the press should be concerned with protecting national interest, not the interest of the current political system. The second is that freedom of the press should be enjoying a larger place in the country provided that it doesn’t intrude on the freedom of others.
Managing editor of the independent newspaper El-Masry Al-Youm Mohamed Radwan told The Daily Star Egypt that the Nozha Misdemeanors court, which ruled in Taha’s case, is an exceptional court that oversaw the case bearing in mind specific articles that cannot be generalized in other cases.
He says the court’s inaccurate investigation was unfair to her from the outset.
“The court’s decision on the case is a severe violation of the freedom of the press. The documentary stated that it included fabricated scenes that imitate reality. Such scenes are normally used in documentary filmmaking. It is not something that she should be charged for, says Radwan.
He added that the accusations levied against Taha, which included tarnishing Egypt’s image and threatening national interest are general and vague.
“What do they mean exactly by ‘tarnishing Egypt’s reputation’? The articles in the penal code cannot be applied on a crime that she has allegedly committed, said Radwan.
However, Amal Ibrahim Saad, an investigative journalist in the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, told The Daily Star Egypt that Taha violated all forms of media ethics and deserves a harsher penalty than merely a six-month imprison sentence and a fine.
“All the scenes in the documentary are fabricated. Police stations in Egypt are not Abu Ghraib prison.this can never be considered freedom of the press in any way. This is a clear fabricated story from her imagination, said Saad.
She added that she doubts that any of the scenes are genuine, and even if there might be some individual cases of torture, it is totally unethical to make a whole documentary out of it and destroy the image of the Egyptian police on a satellite channel like Al-Jazeera.
Moustafa Bakry, the editor-in-chief of Al-Osbou newspaper, told The Daily Star Egypt that no one has the right to comment on the court’s decision and question the judiciary in the case of Taha.
However, he said that Taha, in the documentary, has shown some individual cases of police torture as if this was a general phenomenon in the country.
“Taha should have mentioned the actual crimes of the cases she presented to balance how she showed them as victims. Also, the fabricated scenes could be easily misunderstood by the audience. People are not used to this kind of documentary and they might not understand that the scenes were reconstructed, said Bakry.
He added that the documentary did not provide a comprehensive view of the subject and ignored a large part of the interior ministry.
“There were some government figures who did not have equal space in the documentary like former general Fouad Allam. Taha also ignored mentioning that many of the police abuse cases have been transferred to the judiciary and that a number of cases have been filed against police officers who have committed such crimes, said Bakry.
Nevertheless, Bakry said, whether or not Taha was wrong, he does not support the court decision against her.