Egypt – a country with one of the oldest historical records of modern civilization, boasting everlasting sphinxes and pyramids, captivating monuments, beautiful beaches and alluring deserts; all of which yearly attract millions of tourists. It also holds a lesser known, much more bitter achievement. As of December 2015, Egypt became the world’s second highest in rates of journalists being unlawfully imprisoned, with 23 reporters behind the bars. In 2016, Egypt has been given the 159th place out of 180 in the World Press Freedom index, dropping one place lower in comparison to 2015.
Morsi’s overthrow and al-Sisi’s reign of censorship
Throughout the years, freedom of press in Egypt has been balancing between partly free and not free press status, as recorded by the Freedom House. This regularly changing situation was, however, dramatically changed to the latter after 2013, when former President and high-ranking Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi was removed from the office in the aftermath of Egyptian protests. His place was succeeded by Egyptian’s defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who in 2014 became sixth incumbent President of Egypt. Al-Sisi’s reign started ferociously. He began a grisly suppression against the opponents and protesters of the new regime, resulting in the deaths of 1,400 people and more than 16,000 detained. One of al-Sisi’s first acts after Morsi’s resignation was giving out the order for a complete shutdown of two newspapers and all nine pro-Morsi television stations, after which many of the employees were imprisoned. The media environment in Egypt turned into a hostile place for journalists because criticism of President al-Sisi or the new government, or open support of Muslim Brotherhood, could result in fines or imprisonment. As of 2016, there are no private stations based in Egypt that oppose the government. Media in Egypt therefore became a voice of the government, instead of a voice for its people.
Neglected by the constitution
Egypt’s new legislative body does not offer any support for its journalists. They have become victims of vaguely defined laws that are irregularly implemented. Although the 2014 Constitution regards several promising changes in the press freedom – such as Article 65 that guarantees freedom of thought, opinion and expression, or Articles 70 – 72 that guarantee the freedom of the print and also ban prison terms for press crimes – these laws are still impaired by many ambiguities and exceptions. Even though Article 71 bans prosecution for media offences, it still enables media censorship “in times of war or general mobilization” and it leaves space for imprisonment for crimes related to violence incitement, defamation and discrimination. Furthermore, the 2014 Constitution did not touch upon existing press laws and penal codes. Those Articles which serve as a tool to unjustly imprison journalists remain unchanged.
Tora Prison abuses
Those who are caught opposing the government, including many journalists, are often brought to serve their sentence in Tora Prison. The prison is notoriously known for the inhumane treatment of its detainees. In a report by Human Rights Watch, former prison warden Major General Ibrahim Abd al-Ghaffar confirmed that the Tora prison “was designed so that those who go in don’t come out again unless dead”. According to the report, the inmates are denied contact with their families and lawyers and they are forced to live in derogatory conditions without beds, mattresses or basic hygienic tools. The prisoners are being regularly beaten and humiliated. As another form of punishment they are confined into “discipline cells” for weeks, where they are allegedly tortured. These inhumane living conditions combined with the lack of medical assistance, often results in the inmates’ death.
Infamous cases of jailed journalists
Al-Sisi’s regime has cost many journalists their freedom while they were simply fulfilling their job assignments. There are several well-known cases that were brought to the public light in the past three years. The most popular case of jailed journalists in Egypt is the imprisonment of three Al-Jazeera employees who were arrested on the 29th of December, 2013. Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed were accused of spreading news that allegedly posed a threat to national security. On the 23rd of June, 2014, they were all found guilty by the court and sentenced to seven years in prison. They were all held in Tora prison. Peter Greste, a Latvian-Australian journalist, was deported back to Australia on the 1st of February, 2015 and there is currently no available explanation of the reasons for his release. On the 23rd of September 2015, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were granted a pardon by President al-Sisi. The circumstances around their arrest were widely publicized as their imprisonment sparked public outrage about the freedom of press in Egypt. Fellow colleagues from Al-Jazeera, media workers and activists led an international campaign to appeal on the authorities to release the prisoners and their arrest was criticized by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Another example of the importance of media publicity is the case of Egyptian-American political activist and media spokesperson Mohamed Soltan. He was arrested on the 27th of August, 2013, and charged on conspiracy related offenses following his participation in the demonstrations against ex-President Morsi’s removal from the office. On the 26th of January, 2014, he began a hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions and unfair treatment of prisoners in the Tora Prison as well as the unjustified arrest of him and many other political prisoners and journalists. Soltan’s protest has drawn a lot of international attention and publicity, for which he spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement. Soltan pleaded with the international community and the US President Barack Obama for help in this situation and inspired mass petitions and demonstrations against Egyptian authorities. His hunger strike lasted 489 days, but he was eventually released when he gave up his Egyptian nationality. He was sent back to US on the 31st of May, 2015.
Currently, the most discussed case of the ongoing government’s injustice is the imprisonment of the 28 year old Egyptian photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as “Shawkan”, who is currently held in Tora prison. The progress of his ongoing trial has been more thoroughly documented here.
The most recent example of the suppression of press freedom is the conviction of three leaders of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate. On the 19th of November, 2016, they were charged of the crime of harboring fugitives wanted by the law and spreading false news. The wanted fugitives were opposition journalists Ahmoud El Sakka and Amr Badr, who took a refuge in the syndicate in May 2016. After their arrest, the chairman of the syndicate, Yehia Qalash, demanded the resignation of the interior minister. He and two other board members, Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel, were arrested. But according to Qalash, the government targeted the whole syndicate. According to news reports, they were sentenced to two years of imprisonment. Their shocking and surprising arrest provoked other journalists, who gathered outside the syndicate’s main office in Cairo to protest the verdict. It is the first time in the syndicate’s 75 year long history that its leader had been prosecuted and subsequently sentenced. The protesters outside of the union’s headquarters were demanding the end of military rule while carrying signs saying “Journalism is not a crime”.
It should be clear and it should be a given; journalism is not a crime. Oppressing the freedom of speech and the freedom of press, however, is. Take action and sign the petition which demands justice for the jailed journalists held in Egypt. Sign the ongoing petition by Amnesty International to support photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan), who is currently facing the death penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Spread the word about the injustice that Egyptian journalists are facing, because spreading the word matters. It mattered in case of Al Jazeera’s staff and it mattered in case of human rights activist Mohamed Soltan. Having an opinion is a right, not a privilege.