Journalism in Sisi's Egypt: A stark warning to the world

Journalism in Sisi's Egypt: A stark warning to the world
Comment: Freedom of the press is a tool for democracy, but in Sisi's Egypt, and Assad's Syria the press is being manipulated as a tool for tyranny, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
03 May, 2018
Egyptian photojournalist Shawkan has spent five years languishing in Egypt's Segn el-Aqrab jail [Getty]
Today marks the 25th anniversary of UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day

Usually these events pass without much relevance to those not immediately interested in the main themes, but in today's world, they ought to be more than relevant.  

Democracy around the world is receding and a key part of this democratic recession is of course increasing attacks and restrictions on press freedom.  

Every year on World Press Freedom Day, UNESCO awards the World Press Freedom Prize to individuals and organisations who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion or defence of press freedom.  

The current laureate is the Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, who has spent the last five years languishing in Egypt's notoriously squalid, brutal and overcrowded Segn el-Aqrab (Scorpion prison).

Shawkan's crime was documenting the 2013 Rabaa massacre, during which he was arrested.

After being held for over two years in a pre-trial phase, during which he was tortured and, like most inmates, held in unsanitary conditions, he was eventually charged with absurd offences such as 'joining a criminal gang' and 'murder'.  

Within the context of Sisi's Egypt, this is not abnormal.

Egypt is now in the top three 
worst offenders when it comes to imprisoning journalists for their work. Indeed, the global climate for journalists in the moment is grim - the numbers of journalists imprisoned around the world has hit a record high, with China, Turkey and Egypt responsible for 51 percent of those imprisoned.  

Read more:Syrian regime 'assassinated' American journalist Marie Colvin, court told

In the precious years following 25 January, when the country shifted towards democratisation and unprecedented liberty for civil society, the media began to boom.  

As should be the case in any budding or established democracy, nothing was sacred. In fact, such was the extent of this media boom that the counter-revolutionary forces, which included most of Egypt's economic elites, used the freedom of the press against freedom in general, to put it as plainly as possible.

This is where one must take a nuanced approach when it comes to freedom of the press in the world today.

Mark Twain once wrote that "there are laws to protect the freedom of the press's speech, but there none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press".  

We live in a world where 'fake news' is being used to both erode the value of actual journalism and to bolster anti-democratic forces around the world - to, at best, undermine democracy, and at worst, maintain or advance tyranny.  

Egypt ought to provide the archetype for this.

There you had a situation where increased press freedom was used by anti-democratic forces to aid in the overthrow of democracy and then press freedom was crushed.

As pro-military TV channels owned by feloul (Mubarak loyalists) and talk show hosts peddled absurd and dangerous 
propaganda, people gathered in Tahrir Square on 30 June, 2013 to demand the overthrow of Egypt's Morsi.

Of course, one of the first things the Sisi regime did when it seized power was to shut down all TV stations deemed to be 'pro-Morsi' or that were in any way critical or his regime.

This was then expanded simply to any outlet or individual reporting information that was deemed to be contrary to the interests of the regime, as was the case with Shawkan's photos of the Rabaa massacre. Now it is a crime to simply question anything the military says, while any criticism of the regime can bring the charge of 
'spreading false news'.  

But while Egypt was something of a special case, given it was in a transitional phase when democracy was battling its much stronger and well rooted tyrannical antithesis, it ought to provide the world with a stark warning.  

The numbers of journalists imprisoned around the world has hit a record high

In liberal democracies, we see the media as a sector that provides critical information. But as we've seen, 'fake news' has been utilised to catastrophic effect in the EU referendum in the UK, while actual journalism and expertise were dismissed and maligned by pro-Brexit politicians.  

Similarly, we've seen a huge influx of 'fake news', often linked to Russia, surrounding the Trump administration, including officials citing fictitious massacres perpetrated by Muslims to justify the Trump administration's controversial travel ban.  

While Trump and his allies rely on conspiracy theory outlets such as Breitbart and Infowars, the president dangerously rails against any serious journalism that is critical of him or his interests. Trump wants to cultivate the idea among his support base and potential supporters across the US that the 'mainstream media' is untrustworthy and represents the interests of a treacherous liberal elite.  

We've seen 'fake news' being utilised very adeptly by Russian-sponsored outlets in the aid of pro-Putin fascists and alt-right forces across Europe, most notably in Italy and Germany.  

Pertaining to perhaps the greatest test of our generation, the genocide in Syria, we've seen something even more disturbing: The murder and targeting of journalists who criticise Assad and his allies.  

The Syrian Journalists' Association 
estimates at least 153 journalists - both professional and citizen journalists - who have been murdered during the Syrian war, mostly by regime forces. Most recently the pro-opposition reporter Abdul Rahman Ismael Yassin was murdered in East Ghouta while reporting on Assad and Russia's crimes.  

As with Egypt, though under much more extreme conditions, the Syrian revolution saw a huge boom in media outlets in liberated areas, including outlets that were critical of the rebel forces that protected them, but the Assad axis has worked to wipe them out. As it conquers liberated areas, these media outlets cease to exist and critical voices are repressed.

While most of the journalists killed in Syria have been Syrian, one of the most famous victims was Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, who was killed in Homs when the building she was in was targeted by regime shelling. Her death is proof that the regime deliberately targets those journalists it deems to be a threat.

Any criticism of the regime can bring the charge of 'spreading false news

Documentation provided by defectors has proven she was assassinated by Assad due to her reporting of his crimes.

The theme of this year's Press Freedom Day is 'Keeping power in check: Media, Justice and the Rule of Law'.

In this spirit, we might want to want to contrast the fate of journalists like Colvin, Abdul Rahman and Shawkan - who sought to shed light on the criminality of tyrants and report injustices - with the work of those who work wittingly or unwittingly on behalf of tyrants, peddling falsehoods that bolster injustice, with freedom and privilege.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.