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Arrest of Al-Jazeera Journalist Raises New Concerns Over Press Freedom in Egypt 


Al-Jazeera documentary producer Howaida Taha is the latest journalist arrested by Egyptian state security police. Her brief detention on Monday has revived concerns among rights groups about press freedom in Egypt. VOA Reporter Aya Batrawy has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Over the last six months at least six journalists have been arrested in Egypt.

Al-Jazeera documentary producer Howaida Taha is the latest to be arrested. She was briefly detained by Egypt's state security police while filming in a low-income Cairo neighborhood for a documentary that will delve into the lives of marginalized and impoverished Egyptians.

The Egyptian government, ruled by President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party, has traditionally clamped down on news reports about such issues as poverty and torture.

Only three months ago, Egyptian police arrested journalists and the editors-in-chiefs of Egypt's leading daily opposition newspapers. They face prison sentences and fines for reporting on speculation about the 79-year-old Egyptian president's health.

Taha of Al-Jazeera was detained late Monday night for nearly 15 hours for allegedly filming without proper government-issued permissions, a claim she denies. Although she was released from questioning on Tuesday, the police confiscated her tapes.

Taha declined to elaborate on her recent arrest, saying it is the subject of an ongoing investigation. But she tells VOA that she is more concerned about the people she is covering than whether the government considers the issue too sensitive to be reported.

She says she is speaking about the lives of normal people in Egypt, which all television channels discuss.

Al-Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief Hussein Abdel-Ghany says that despite the arrest, the broadcast outlet will continue working on the documentary, titled In the Shadows.

He says Al-Jazeera will not change its style or level of reporting as long as it is conducted professionally so no one can accuse the organization of favoring the government or the opposition. He says Al-Jazeera's objective is to report on the lives of average people in Egypt and the Arab world.

Gasser Abdel-Razek of Human Rights Watch says the journalists being arrested are targeted because they represent one of the last spaces where political dissent is being expressed.

"The sensitive issues are not constant but usually reflect the political space that is left for people in Egypt by the regime and since the end of 2005 that political space has been shrinking and therefore the taboo issues, if we can call them that, are becoming more and more restricted," said Abdel-Razek.

This was Taha's second arrest. Last January her work for the pan-Arab television station landed her in prison and she now faces a six-month jail sentence along with a $5,000 fine.

At the time of that arrest, Taha had finished taping a reconstruction of police torture for a documentary she was preparing. Those tapes were also confiscated and Taha was accused of fabricating scenes of torture and found guilty of harming Egypt's interests.

Taha had copies of the tapes and the documentary aired on Al-Jazeera in April.

The journalist has appealed the verdict and is awaiting the results of her appeal.

Tariq Munir, the representative of Reporters without Borders in Egypt, says he believes Taha will likely have to serve the sentence. He says although Egypt's constitution guarantees press freedom, those freedoms are not implemented. He says President Mubarak has the final say on how the constitution is, or is not, implemented.

"He's not only the highest office or highest post in the executive authority. No, he is also the highest office in the judicial authority, and he can sack the whole parliament with a signature," said Munir. "In the blink of an eye, he can sack all of parliament and it happened in 1970s when Sadat was alive."

The government's response is to say that arrests are in accordance with Egyptian law.

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