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Egyptian Newspapers Call Strike in Support of Jailed Editors

Egyptian journalists are planning a newspaper strike to protest a crackdown on the press. The head of the Egyptian Press Syndicate says the string of court cases is aimed at muzzling the independent news media, which has been critical of the government. VOA correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

The decision to hold a day without independent newspapers has taken on new urgency after the sentencing of three more journalists to jail terms in connection to their critical reporting on government officials.

On Monday, a court sentenced the editor of the opposition daily Al-Wafd and two of his journalists to two years in prison for allegedly publishing false information about the justice minister.

The editor, Anwar al-Hawari, is the fifth chief of a private or opposition newspaper to be sentenced to jail this month.

In a separate case, a court earlier issued year-long jail terms to four editors for defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal. The papers had published stories about the president's health and speculation that his son would be named his successor.

After those sentences were handed down, Egypt's private and opposition-owned newspapers decided to hold a one-day publishing strike.

Now with three more journalists sentenced to jail, the secretary-general of the Egyptian Press Syndicate, Yehia Kallash, says the editors will be meeting Wednesday to decide when the strike will take place.

He told VOA that the court cases are clearly aimed at stifling the country's boisterous independent press, and punishing journalists who criticize the government or the ruling party.

He says the goal of these verdicts is to frighten and silence the voices of reporters. But, he says, based on previous experience he believes they would rather make a sacrifice than be silenced.

He said even though President Mubarak has promised to eliminate the laws allowing journalists to be sent to prison for publishing offenses, it is clear from the recent string of prosecutions that the government is not really interested in changing that.

The sentencing of the four editors earlier in the month prompted criticism from a variety of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

On Monday, the White House issued a statement saying it was deeply concerned about the sentences handed down to the Wafd journalists, as well as the recent decision to shut down a local human rights group, the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid.

The United States is an ally of the Egyptian government and sends about two billion dollars worth of civilian and military assistance to Egypt every year. Some members of Congress have argued that Egypt's aid package should be cut because of the country's poor human rights record and lack of progress toward democracy.