BROOKE GLADSTONE: Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is among trying to diffuse the situation in Lebanon. Egypt is a major recipient of U.S. aid and acts sometimes as a moderating force in the region. During Mubarak's 2004 campaign, he promised to end prison sentences for reporters charged with libeling officials, but a proposed new law prompted some 28 independent and opposition papers to strike last Sunday and hundreds of journalists filled the street in front of the Parliament building. That proposed law kept open the possibility of prison terms for journalists who criticized the president, his cabinet or the Parliament, and it passed Monday, despite the protests. But Mubarak did remove the clause that would jail journalists for reporting on the financial improprieties of officials. Since corruption is rife in that nation, that was seen as a small victory in a much larger war. Heba Saleh reports from Cairo for the BBC. She said the protest also was small, but it made a big point.
HEBA SALEH: I was there. There were maybe 100 journalists, and they were surrounded by hundreds of riot police and countless officers milling around. There was no tension, but there was an attempt to keep it small and ensure that it did not grow and that it did not move from its place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, during Mubarak's presidential campaign in 2004, he made some promises regarding the press – that it would have more freedom and that it would be able to report on the government.
HEBA SALEH: More specifically, he made a promise that he would abolish prison sentences for journalists. And that's what angered the press when they found out about the new law, because even though prison sentences for some offenses were abolished, there are other offenses that are still punishable by prison. And these are insulting the president, insulting public institutions, like the Cabinet or Parliament, and also insulting the heads of foreign governments. But a new offense was introduced, and that's the offense of casting doubts on the financial integrity of public officials, which really means speaking out against corruption. And President Mubarak intervened on Monday, finally, and did away with the prison part of the punishment, though he doubled the fine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since corruption is such a huge problem in Egypt, what is it that you can report on if you can't report on corruption freely?
HEBA SALEH: I think journalists will still be able to report on corruption. The fines will limit the tendency to launch unsubstantiated attacks. I think it will force journalists to work harder to get the information that they need to have before criticizing anyone of corruption. And I just think that even though the fines are high, they're not going to be high enough to stop a paper that's really determined and that has information on corruption from going public with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you tell me how the independent press in Egypt has grown in the two years since Mubarak made those earlier promises of freedom?
HEBA SALEH: There are now at least 10 or 12 new papers, I would say, and these have become very bold in the last two years. The U.S. has been pressing for democratic reform in the Middle East, and the U.S. singled out Egypt as a country which should lead the region in democracy. And also there was the anti-war movement, and that emboldened many people to take on the government. And, of course, Mr. Mubarak has been saying last year that Egypt is reforming. That's partly the response to U.S. pressure. He announced last year that for the first time, Egypt would have contested presidential elections, and that he was leading the country into a new democratic era. So all this changed the atmosphere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, it wasn't an entirely consistent change. There was an editor and a journalist at an independent paper who were sentenced in April for reporting on a lawsuit against Mubarak, his wife and his son.
HEBA SALEH: They're appealing the sentence now, but people have taken this as a very ominous sign. The reforms have turned out to be more cosmetic than many people had hoped they would be. And, of course, the U.S. has fallen silent on reform, and that's another thing that's very often commented upon. The activists have never counted on U.S. pressure on Mr. Mubarak because they say that they cannot really rely on it to stay the course, and they're saying now that they've been proved correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The one element that we've left out of this discussion is probably the most influential news outlet in Egypt, which is Al-Jazeera.
HEBA SALEH: Yes. I think it's the satellite broadcasters who are actually creating the pressure on the printed press to become more interesting, to become more varied, to reflect what's really happening. And it is the presence of the satellite broadcasters that's also, in a way, sort of staying the hands of governments from being even more repressive. I mean, of course, they are repressive, but they could be even more repressive across the region towards the newspapers. So at any one point, there is an Arab government which is not very happy with Al-Jazeera.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Heba, thank you very much.
HEBA SALEH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Heba Saleh reports from Cairo for the BBC. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, TV takes on the tough issues in Pakistan, and the 10th birthday of the troubled middle child of cable news.