Calls for journalist charged with libeling minister to be acquitted

Press watchdog IPI called on Monday for the acquittal of an Egyptian journalist accused of insulting a minister, as it stressed the need for freedom of opinion ahead of elections next year.

Hamdy Qandil, a prominent opposition journalist, is to go on trial for allegedly libeling Egypt's Foreign Minister in a newspaper, a judicial source said on Sunday. He could face prison or a fine if found guilty of the charge of "insulting and libeling a public servant or citizen performing their work," the source added.

"We are deeply concerned that this case will go before a criminal court, and hope that the judge will acquit Hamdi Qandil of this crime," International Press Institute (IPI) spokesman Anthony Mills said in a statement.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit filed a complaint against Qandil alleging that he insulted him in a piece published in the independent daily al-Shorouk last May.

In his article, Qandil criticized statements made by the minister, saying that "words usually drop from his [Abul Gheit's] mouth like garbage from a perforated rubbish bag."

"Journalists should not have to operate in the shadow of criminal defamation laws, especially those explicitly protecting public servants, whose activities fall within the public interest," Mills added. "Particularly in a pre-election period it is crucial that Egyptians have free access to a diversity of opinions and news."

Egypt is due to hold presidential elections next year.

Qandil, who is also a spokesman for a reform group headed by the former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, said he believed the case was "political."

"This does not have to go to court," he told Agence France Presse. "His [Abul Gheit's] statements are always criticised in the media. I believe there is a political agenda behind this."

Earlier this year, Qandil joined the National Association for Change, a loose opposition coalition headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, former chief of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. Later, several media outlets quoted Qandil as criticizing ElBaradei’s “short stays in Egypt.”     

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