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Egyptian press fear rollback of reforms

Journalists protested proposed press law Sunday and reporter arrests for criticizing the president.

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In recent years Egypt's press has been allowed more room. A feisty independent newspaper began publishing last year and politically partisan weekly papers have launched one broadside after another against President Hosni Mubarak.

But Egyptian journalists allege a government backlash is under way and they're pushing back. Sunday, at least 24 daily and weekly papers withheld publication, and a rowdy demonstration of about 500 journalists and supporters was held at the parliament building in downtown Cairo, with one banner sarcastically declaring "Viva corruption. Down with freedom of the press."

The press boycott follows the recent sentencing of two journalists to a year in prison for the crime of defaming Mubarak and his family. It comes as lawmakers prepared to vote on a proposed new press law Sunday that would double libel fines and also allow the continued use of libel laws against critics of the president and journalists who write in detail about the finances of public officials.

In 2004, Mubarak had promised to do away with prison sentences for libel. "Nobody in Egypt will be imprisoned again for their opinions," Press Syndicate Chairman Galal Aref said at the time. But Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent weekly Al Dustour, and colleague Sahar Zaki are evidence that promise hasn't been kept. They were sentenced for an April article that outlined a lawsuit against Mubarak and his family charging the president– his wife Suzanne and his son Gamal, presumed by many here to be Mubarak's heir apparent – of "wasting the government's resources," "squandering foreign aid," and turning "Egypt into a monarchy."

The two journalists were also fined $1,750. The lawyer who filed the lawsuit, Mohammed Sulaiman, received an identical sentence. Two other journalists have been sentenced on un– related charges this year, and a number of pro-democracy bloggers have also been detained without charges or trial.

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