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Egypt steps on the press as it backtracks on democratic reform

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Court proceedings started Sunday against Howaida Taha, an Al Jazeera journalist arrested while producing a documentary on police torture in Egypt. She's charged with harming national interests and faces five years in prison.

Meanwhile, Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer has been in jail since November awaiting trial, charged with criticizing Islam and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Taken together, these cases have given journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists in Egypt cause to fear an impending crackdown on the country's outspoken independent press and its young, activist bloggers, who have been primary agitators for democratic reform.

"These attacks on the press send a chilling message to all members of the media who attempt to tackle sensitive topics," says Joel Campagna, Middle East program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "There's been a steady level of pressure against domestic and pan-Arab media, and bloggers, which might be coming to a head."

Over the past year, the government has steadily rolled back political reforms implemented since 2004 after the Bush administration singled out Egypt as ripe for democratic reform. Since then, Egypt has held parliamentary elections that were allegedly rife with fraud, police have violently suppressed demonstrations, and the government has arrested hundreds of opposition Muslim Brotherhood members, who hold 88 out of 454 parliamentary seats.

And many worry Egypt's relative freedom of expression may be ending, too. Indeed, they say, Ms. Taha's case is alarming. She was accused of fabricating scenes of torture after the authorities discovered her unedited video including reenactments of torture scenes. Taha says she had Interior Ministry cooperation for the project and had told them about the reenactments.

Activists and journalists say the government is trying to squash accusations of Egyptian police torture with Taha's case, which comes amid revelations of rampant abuse after bloggers posted videos online of apparent police torture.

In one particular case, a minibus driver is shown being sodomized with a stick. Since the tape surfaced, two police officers have been jailed and are scheduled to stand trial. The driver, who subsequently filed a complaint against the police, is serving three months in prison for resisting the authorities.

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