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Egyptian Journalists Protest Proposed Press Law

Not a single opposition or independent newspaper was for sale Sunday in Cairo because of a strike over a controversial proposed press law. The same issue brought hundreds of journalists into the streets to protest what they see as an attempt to restrict press freedom.

Several hundred journalists and twice as many riot police clogged the sidewalk outside parliament, as lawmakers debated Egypt's controversial press law.

The past few years have seen an upsurge in the number of opposition and independent newspapers for sale on the streets of Cairo. But on Sunday, there were none. At least 25 independent and opposition papers observed a one-day strike to protest the proposed press law, which local journalists see as tightening restrictions on the media.

"Freedom of the press has been just a big lie in Egypt for years," said Ahmed Abul-Shadi.

Veteran freelance journalist Ahmed Abul-Shadi says, during last year's election campaign, President Hosni Mubarak promised to increase freedom of the press, and do away with prison sentences for journalists charged with crimes, such as libel or slander.

"A law has been put together that does exactly the opposite," he said. "It does restrict freedom of the press, and it does threaten people who write about corruption. And this is why we are here today, to protest the retreat from the little freedom that we have had and the promise that the president has made."

Under the new press law, defamation charges would still carry up to a two-year prison sentence, and the maximum fine has been increased. In one section, the draft law allows the jailing of journalists, who accuse government officials of financial corruption.

That section worries many Egyptian journalists, including reporter Jano Charbel of the German news agency, DPA.

"So, if they ban people from writing about corruption today, then tomorrow, they will put further restrictions on what journalists can write and what they cannot," said Jano Charbel.

During the past six months, reform-minded opposition activists have accused the Egyptian government of backtracking on promises of political reforms, including judicial independence, freedom of expression and the repeal of the notorious emergency law. Bahey El-Din Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies says they are all connected.

"The question is not only what happens with the press law," said Bahey El-Din Hassan. "The press law is one step back, and it is an indication of what is the reality of the political will concerning the claims of political reform."

A surprising number of journalists from state-owned and pro-government newspapers took part in the protest against the proposed press law - a sign of how controversial it is. One woman wore her hands tied together with chains, to symbolize the muzzling of the free press.

But few of the protesters seemed to think that their demonstration would actually stop the passage of the bill that was being debated just a few meters away. The ruling National Democratic Party has an overwhelming majority in parliament, so even though a number of ruling party members are believed to oppose the press law, it seemed likely to pass easily.

The head of the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate, Galal Aref, says, "If it is approved as it is, we will keep opposing it; we will keep working to defeat it." He says, "We will keep fighting for a just law that will allow the press to fulfill its role."