Since the military coup of June 30th 2013, the decline of the freedom of press and media in Egypt forced local and foreign journalism to face growing challenges and obstacles.
During the past two and a halfyears, a large number of observers, journalists and media practitioners, as well as several human rights activistsreported and documented a rising and an unprecedented number of violations such as physical assaults and injuries, confiscation of equipment, sexual and verbal assaults, by state and non-state actors that targeted local and foreign journalists and correspondents. And little to no action has been taken to prevent the recurrence of these violations.
In its annual report about the Status of the Freedom of Speech in Egypt in 2014, the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), a local human rights organization, documented more than 700 violations against journalists in 2013 and 2014.
In one of its reports, AFTE concluded that the security campaign on journalists led to a rising wave of popular hostility from ordinary citizens towards correspondents.
According to the Status of the Freedom of Press Annual Ranking in 2013 and 2014 by Reporters without Borders, an international group focused on reporting abuses against journalists, Egypt ranked 158 and 159 respectively out of 180 countries. Again, this was an alarming indicator of the deteriorating situation of the freedom of the press in the country.
Nevertheless, the most upsetting form of violations against journalists in Egypt is the rising number of “imprisoned journalists” since the ousting of the former president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013.
A recent report was published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York based group that offers legal aid to journalists worldwide, that found that Egypt was second only to China as the world’s “worst jailer of journalists” in 2015, affirming on the figures earlier announced by the Press Syndicate, claiming that there are currently 35 journalists either serving their terms or are on prolonged pre-trial detention terms.
This article will shed some light on the different reasons that turn journalists into jailed journalists in Egypt by analysing the impact of the “repressive” press legislation on the status of the freedom of press and some of the criminal trials (civilian/military) that ended mainly in putting journalists behind bars.
Why do journalists in Egypt end up in jail ?
The status of the press mirrored the heat of the political polarisation that struck Egypt after June 30th 2013. Since the ousting of the former President, Mohamed Morsi, most of the independent newspapers and websites began to “voluntarily” support the state policies and its political agenda. The regime rewarded their loyalty by reviving their old alliance by undermining the marginal freedom the press enjoyed particularly after January 2011.
However, in the months that followed the coup, the regime showed little interest in respecting the “rule of law” and its smear campaign on political dissent included bashing opposition newspapers and independent journalism, as most of its violations and abuses were carried out outside any legal framework.
This was particularly manifested after the violent dispersal of the Raba’a sit-in and in the wake of the security crackdown on political dissent that transpired in the following months as field correspondents were deliberately targeted by security forces during the dispersal of a number of Brotherhood-led protests which led to deaths of a dozen journalists, at least.
As this political crackdown intensified, the regime also began to suppress its supporting newspapers to ensure the press’s compliance with its agenda after successfully silencing the opposition newspapers, forcing most of them to shut down.
Interestingly, the editors-in-chief as well as the owners of the independent newspapers met in October 2014 to reaffirm their “commitment” to support the state efforts to combat terrorism after a terror attack in Sinai by “excluding the dissenting voices in the newspapers who oppose these efforts”.
This came at a time when the press syndicate shied away from reporting most of the abuses and from providing the legal aid to the journalists who did not acquire its membership. It was not until the recent election of a new syndicate board that the syndicate started to change its position.
This socio-political context is very important to understand the background of the ongoing crackdown on the freedom of press in Egypt, as it later laid the foundation for the imprisonment of the journalists by stripping journalists of any legal protection against these abuses.
How does Egyptian press law allow for the imprisonment of journalists ?
Although the 2014 constitution acknowledged, for the first time, the rights to freedom of press and freedom of publications, the press legislations are regarded as “archaic”, “repressive”, “unconstitutional”, and “violating” the international obligations of the Egyptian government to respect and guarantee the right to freedom of press. This is according to legal analysts and human rights groups.
It is believed that the Press Syndicate law 76/1970 as well as the Press Law 96/1996 were tailored particularly to ensure the state control over the issuance of the journalists obligatory legal permits, the funding and the ownership of the newspapers, but most importantly to ensure the harsh penalisation of dissenting journalists.
For example, the Press Law 96/1996 recognised a number of universal rights of journalists such as the right to obtain and disseminate information, the prohibition of the custodial detention of journalists in publication crimes. The Penal Code on the other hand allows for the imprisonment and the fining of journalists in 22 articles for crimes such as “insulting the president, the cabinet, parliamentarians, diplomats and foreign heads of states” as well as the “dissemination of false information”, the “incitement to overthrow the political regime or to disobey the constitution and the national legislations”.
Accordingly, journalists in courtrooms were usually charged with these hideous crimes, which do not only violate their basic human rights but also their constitutional rights.
Despite the law prohibiting the custodial detention of journalists in publication crimes, the Press Syndicate law only recognises journalists who are “registered in the syndicate” as worthy of this legal protection.
Such hardships would prove to be costly when the Press Syndicate refused for so long to cooperate in the efforts to release the detained journalists by refusing to grant them membership of the syndicate.
Journalist trials… mockery of justice ?
Since Ahmed AbouDera’a, the Sinai correspondent of Al Masry Al Youm, which is an independent newspaper, was referred to a military court for publishing about the army operations without permission in late 2013, the number of detained journalists grew worryingly without any guarantees of due process of law or fair trials.
Most of the detained journalists were not members of the Press Syndicate, which stripped them of any formal legal protection, however due to the lack of rule of law in Egypt since 2013, some of the journalists in custodial detention were members in the syndicate – thereby a violation of the constitution as well as of the press laws.
Moreover, as the vast majority of the detained journalists were arrested during the violent clashes between the security forces and the protesters, the journalists were mixed with the detained protesters, largely members of Islamist movements. Capitalising on the growing public discontent against the Muslim Brotherhood, the security forces usually identified journalists as troublemakers and members of terrorist groups to ensure that they lose the public sympathy and the international support.
This was usually followed by incessant physical abuses and verbal harassments in police stations and detention camps before they were interrogated by the prosecutors. During the interrogation, the journalists were not offered the proper legal representation as they were detained in “illegal” detention facilities, and were usually charged with crimes that do not necessarily relate to their work so as to facilitate their referral to “anti-terrorism” judicial circuits, which are best known for their lack of due process and very harsh verdicts.
In addition, many of these journalists were not directly referred to criminal prosecution as the prosecutors as well as the appeal court renewed their custodial detention terms, sometimes lasting for more than two years without trial.
Interestingly, as the case of Ahmed Fouad, a 20-year-old Alexandrian journalist who is still now detained since January 2014, many of these detention orders were only based on the State Security reports provided to the Appeal Courts that affirmed the journalists’ charges, with complete disregard to the evidence provided by the victims’ families and legal aides.
Another example is Mahmoud Shawkan, an Egyptian freelance photographer, who was detained during the dispersal of the Raba’a sit-in and whose pre-trial detention order lasted for more than two years, in violation of the law, as he was accused of participating in the sit-in.
Nevertheless, it is also important to highlight that the majority of the detained journalists were incarcerated in maximum-security prisons, usually specified for criminals and high-profile terrorists, like the three Al-Jazeera journalists who spent six months in the notorious Al-Aqrab prison.
Due to that, most of the detained journalists like Shawkan or Mohamed Soultan among others suffered severely from the lack of medical care offered in these prisons, which put their lives at great risk, especially when some of them decided to hunger strike in protest of their humiliating detention statuses.
Furthermore, for those who dared to testify about their statuses in jail like Ahmed Gamal Ziada, a photographer for an independent news agency, were punished by physical abuses and long-term solitary confinement, according to his testimony in court.
It was also common that journalists were barred from communicating with their legal representatives during the court hearings, like the three Muslim Brotherhood journalists who are currently serving life sentences due to their participation in the Brotherhood’s Media Centre in the Raba’a sit-in. They were accused of disseminating falsified information about the political regime and harming the national security of the country at the time.
This came at a crucial time when the Egyptian judiciary became highly politicised after the ousting of President Morsi in 2013, as the judiciary turned into a “political foe” to the January revolution and to its figures, but more importantly to independent journalism.
In the famous trial of the three “Al-Jazeera journalists” which ended in sentencing them to 7-10 years in 2014, the court accused the journalists of endangering the national security of the country and of disseminating false information about the state, by relying on irrelevant evidence that included a BBC documentary about Somalia, a program about “sheep farming”, as well as footage of a Kenyan press conference, according to press reports.
This trial that was regarded by some as a “mockery of justice” as it intensified the international criticism it brought to the Egyptian authorities. More importantly, this verdict meant to send a threatening message to the independent journalists about the fate they might face in courtrooms.
In a recent interview, Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata went to express his support to the state in its war on terror and his genuine contempt for the political and human rights activists as well as the independent journalists, who were sentenced by his court circuit, by accusing them of “treason”.
Shockingly, judge Shehata praised the regime’s loyal journalists for “their great services to their country”. One of these journalists is Ahmed Mousa who was sentenced last summer by a criminal court to two years for committing libel, but instead of serving his term, he led the press coverage of the president trip to Berlin four days later. Needless to mention that the court ruling was overturned later by a judge known for his support to the regime.
Any attempt to improve the status of the freedom of press in Egypt shall first start by supporting all the local and the international efforts to release all the detained journalists, unconditionally, as their detention is a violation of the international principles of freedom of press, such as the International Covenant for Political and Civil Rights, the Windhoek Declaration of the Freedom of Press, and the UNHRC general commentary no. 34/2011.
Egypt is either party to or has ratified these conventions which all prohibit the imprisonment of journalists and the criminalisation of holding and expressing opinions.