Police State Egypt: The war on journalism

Police State Egypt: The war on journalism
While Press Syndicate leaders await a verdict in their appeal against imprisonment, and a new media law threatens further government control, Egypt sees its worst days for press freedom.
6 min read
18 February, 2017
Yehia Qalash and other Press Syndicate leaders face multiple charges [AFP]

In its second court session, last month, the appeal of the Press Syndicate leaders against their imprisonment was adjourned until 25 February for a final verdict.

Last November, the syndicate's president, Yehia Qalash, secretary-general Gamal Abdul Reheem, and head of the syndicate's Freedoms Committee, Khaled El-Balshy, were each sentenced to two years in prison and given a bail of EGP 10,000.

For the first time in Egypt's history, the head of the journalists' union faced prosecution. It was an unprecedented crackdown on media freedom.

The three leaders were charged for sheltering Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Saqa - two journalists accused of inciting protests against the Red Sea islands deal on 15 April 2016 - and publishing false information.

On May 1, the two suspects were arrested after security forces stormed the union's premises for the first time since its establishment in 1941.

Under Egyptian law, permission from the public prosecutor is required in order to search the press syndicate premises and any search must be carried out in the presence of the head of the syndicate, or other senior management.

"These days are the worst for Egypt's press in all its history," El-Balshy commented. "Targeting the press union, a place that historically opens its doors to all citizens, also means attacking freedom of expression."

Families of political detainees, students, workers - not just journalists - have in the past taken their demands to the doorstep of the syndicate.

The three board members appealed against their original convictions.

The sentencing of key media figures marks a dangerous escalation of draconian measures taken against the press by Egyptian authorities. The age of President Sisi has seen a security environment which has tightened its grip each and every day.

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In the past three and a half years, Egypt has seen an accelerating deterioration in the state of press freedom amid interference of the security state in the country's media scene and heavy restrictions placed on journalists.

Last December, Egypt's president ratified a new law regulating media outlets that will further control the media.

The new law will create three regulatory bodies, two to oversee state-owned press and media organisations, and a Higher Council for Media Regulation to regulate all Egypt's media outlets - whether public or private.

This supreme council will have the authority to fine or suspend publications and broadcasters, and to provide or revoke foreign media permits.

The Journalists' Syndicate condemned the crackdown. "The law allows the executive power to take control of media outlets," its statement read.

Wesam Atta, who runs the media freedom unit at the Association for Freedom of Thoughts and Expression, agreed.
"This regime doesn't want media pluralism - but one voice, and it has to be the state's," he told The New Arab.

"The state is seeking to nationalise journalism and civil society altogether."

The union says the law does not reflect the several discussions between stakeholders and government officials over the past year, while the press community was awaiting a unified media law that would address the ethical regulation of media and press outlets.

The latest draft was further amended - allowing the president to appoint a quarter of the board members for both press and media supervisory institutions, thus violating the principles of independence and neutrality upheld in Article 72 of the Egyptian Constitution.

Feature continues below interactive timeline

The press union also opposed provisions in the law that allow the imprisonment of journalists and media professionals for crimes related to publishing - in clear contrast with the constitutional articles guaranteeing freedom of expression and banning censorship.

"Censorship in Egypt is a reality in both legal and extra-legal terms. There isn't anything that allows for independent or critical reporting," noted Sherif Mansour, MENA programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"Any media law that strengthens executive powers means that it is used in politically motivated trials to intimidate and silence journalists," he added.

Human rights organisation have criticised the lack of media freedoms in Egypt, and countless violations against the press and journalists as a result of their work.

There were 134 documented violations against the media community between July and December 2016, revealed the latest half-yearly report issued by the AFTE media freedom unit.

These abuses range from the arrest of journalists while on the job, prevention from coverage, illegal detention, assault by beating or causing injury - as well as the confiscation and destruction of press equipment.

The Egyptian Press Syndicate estimates there are at least 30 journalists currently behind bars in Egypt, although rights organisations say the number is higher.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reports there are more than 60 members of the media in Egypt's prisons.

According to CPJ, 25 journalists were imprisoned in 2016 alone, making Egypt the world's third-largest jailor of reporters, after Turkey and China. The international watchdog also counted nine journalists killed in Egypt during the course of their work since July 2013.

Read more about photographer Shawkan's case [Getty]

Many of those locked up have exceeded the legal two-year term of pre-trial detention. Photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid - known as Shawkan - has been held in prison since August 2013 for covering clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted President Morsi during the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Raba'a Al-Adawiya Square.

The Al-Jazeera case also brought international attention to today's press situation in Egypt. Al Jazeera English journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste were arrested in Cairo in December 2013, with accusations of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news. They were sentenced to prison.

More than a year later, Greste was deported via Cyprus to Australia on February 1, 2015. Mohamed and Fahmy were released on bail two weeks later, pending sentencing. The pair were taken back into custody in August, when the judge handed down three-year jail sentences to all three.

After pressure from a host of governments and an almost two-year global solidarity campaign that came to be known as #FreeAJstaff, the saga ended in September 2015 when President Sisi pardoned Fahmy and Mohamed and released from prison.

Despite the journalists' release, Egyptian authorities continue to target Al-Jazeera personnel. Last month, Egyptian prosecutors renewed the detention of Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa, an Al-Jazeera producer, who was arrested in December at a residence in Giza.

He is charged of "incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos".

Hussein worked at the channel's Egypt bureau in 2013, before it was shut down by the state.

  Special series: Police State Egypt
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Whether private or state-run, Egypt's press is in chains under Sisi's rule in a media landscape increasingly dominated by the state and business-owners, El-Balshy explained.

"Businessman Abu Hashima bought three TV channels: ONTV, CBC and Al Nahar. These private channels have state mouthpieces in their staff, and some linked to the security apparatus," said the press syndicate leader.

With the level of repression of free speech at its worst, media freedom campaigner Atta believes that, after restricting the work of traditional media, the Egyptian state will next target social media.

But this will not be easy for them.

"People more and more turn to social networks to access alternative information," Atta surmised. "It will be hard for the state to have control over the web, it's out of their hands."

This feature is the latest in a series by Jo Schietti from inside Police State Egypt. Catch up with all our special coverage on Egypt's war against democracy and civil life here.