CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Thursday ordered a popular TV presenter and a chief editor of an independent daily to face trial for insulting the country's newly elected Islamist president.
The Cairo court charged controversial TV presenter Tawfiq Okasha with suggesting the killing of President Mohammed Morsi during his nightly TV show. The court also referred the chief editor of el-Dustour daily, Islam Afifi, for his newspaper's harsh criticism of Morsi.
Thursday's court referrals escalate the unfolding standoff between Egypt's new Islamist president and his opponents in the media. Last week, members of the upper house of parliament chose new editors for state-owned newspapers despite demands for a vote by newspaper staff or an independent media body. Around half the seats in the upper house of parliament are controlled by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group.
The editors were appointed by members of the upper house, in the same manner as under former President Hosni Mubarak, prompting the Egyptian Journalist's Syndicate to condemn the selection process. Hundreds of journalists came out to the streets to protest.
Meanwhile, Okasha's network el-Faraeen, or the Pharaohs, was ordered off the air after he warned Morsi not to attend the funeral of 16 Egyptian soldiers killed in a militant attack this month in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. He said the "spilling" of Morsi's blood would be permissible and alleged the Brotherhood was behind the attack close to the border with Israel.
Okasha is popular both for his scathing criticism of the Brotherhood and also of the youth groups and activists behind last year's uprising that toppled Mubarak. Okasha was a member of Mubarak's ruling party before it was dissolved.
Nearly a month after he was sworn-in, Morsi met with media chiefs and promised there would be no restrictions on press freedoms. Under Mubarak, reporters were jailed and fined for writing about his health, for example.
Morsi's spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters later Thursday that the president had nothing to do with the court's decision on the two media figures and that he continues to support press freedoms.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that Washington is "very concerned" about moves to restrict media freedom in Egypt and called on all players to support democratic principles, but added that the overall situation in Egypt "is quite complicated and quite confused and quite evolving."
"Freedom of the press, freedom of expression are fundamental tenants of vibrant, strong democracies, they are part and parcel of what the Egyptian people went into the streets for," she said. "We join the Egyptian people in expecting that their new government will support and extend freedom of the press."
Nuland also said Washington is looking to see is how Egypt's new constitution emerges and "whether it truly protects democratic freedoms and lives up to the high standards that the Egyptian people expect.
After the attack on troops in Sinai, Morsi stunned the public over the weekend when he ordered the retirement of the country's defense minister and chief of staff and reclaimed key powers the military had seized from the president just days before he took office June 30, including right to legislate and control over the drafting of a new constitution.
Some in Egypt fear Morsi and his Brotherhood patrons have suddenly amassed too much power.
But hundreds of Brotherhood supporters gathered late Thursday in Cairo's Tahrir Square – the epicenter of Egypt's uprising that toppled Mubarak in February 2011 – to show their support for Morsi and his latest moves.
Speaking to worshippers in a Cairo mosque Thursday after breaking a daylong Ramadan fast at the presidential palace with the military's new top brass, Morsi urged Egyptians to remain patient in order "to build a democratic nation governed by the law."
"God makes victorious those who know, realize, work, persist, who give – and not those who wait for handouts, except from God," he said in a speech brimming with Islamic prose.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.