The editor of one of Egypt's most popular independent newspapers was sentenced to one year in prison for insulting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Human rights activists and journalists consider the court's decision as an assault on press freedoms.
As a columnist, outspoken journalist Ibrahim Eissa has developed a reputation as a fearless critic of the Egyptian government. As an editor, he has built the weekly newspaper Al Dustor into one of the most daring publications in Egypt. Its hard-hitting headlines regularly challenge taboos by directly criticizing President Hosni Mubarak, his family, and prominent government officials.
Eissa says the country's first contested presidential elections last year were accompanied by pledges of democratic reform that encouraged Egyptians like himself to push the boundaries of free speech.
He says Egyptians imagined that maybe the new atmosphere would allow them to speak freely and criticize the president.
Eissa says this shift was especially significant because the president holds a holy position in Egypt, as though he cannot be questioned or critiqued.
But Monday, an Egyptian court found Eissa guilty on charges of insulting the president and spreading rumors that threatened public security.
He was sentenced to a fine and a year in prison for publishing an article that reported on a lawsuit filed against Mr. Mubarak and his family. According to the article, the lawsuit demanded that Mr. Mubarak be put on trial for wasting billions in foreign aid and mismanaging the sale of public sector assets.
The court also convicted the journalist who wrote the article and the man who filed the original lawsuit. All three are free on bail awaiting appeal.
Egyptian human rights activist Gasser Abdel Razek says he is concerned the verdict is part of a larger an attack on freedom of expression in Egypt, especially coming on the heels of the arrests and beatings of hundreds of anti-government protesters during the past few months. He says the government may be trying to make an example of Eissa.
"Dustor has become an important part of the reform movement and it is one of the very critical papers of the regime and particularly the president and his family," Abdel Razek says. "So my estimation is that definitely the ruling is designed to reflect that Ibrahim will pay for being so critical."
For Ibrahim Eissa, the court's verdict demonstrates the need for a new press law in Egypt that would end the jailing of journalists for libel - a tactic he says the government often employs to silence political opposition.
He says there is nothing that protects him, or protects the newspaper or the journalist from prison. He says he has to practice his freedom by relying on his courage, not on the law.
Mr. Mubarak promised a new press law several years ago, but the 78-year-old ruler has yet to deliver a draft. With Eissa's trial, opposition activists fear the promise of increased press freedom will remain unfulfilled.