Fire in the Hole; Egypt and the fight for press freedom

On all the roads leading out of Midan el-Tahrir, people marched home, jubilant, exhausted, revived. Fresh paint glinted along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where the dead were commemorated in lively murals, and along Sixth October Bridge, cars caught in the gridlock sat under piles of teenagers waving flags. Many of those who had been in Tahrir during the 18 day revolution, or any of the many battlegrounds across Egypt, went home without a family member, friend or comrade. Many too had lost their eyes. Nobody left as they came.

Some left on the morning of the 13th February after a night spent celebrating the end of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year regime; others stayed for weeks, believing that the revolution had not succeeded until negotiations were had between the street and the interim government who, in the weeks that followed, coolly swept in with batons and bulldozers and cleared away what remained of the tent city in Tahrir, beating and detaining many of those who had stayed.

The people returned to the street dozens of times in the months after the revolution. Some returned in the name of political Islam, others for better wages and conditions for workers, and some called for women’s rights, their cheers, chants and demands falling on deaf ears and battering against closed balcony shutters.

“Al shab yurid isqat al-nizam!” The people demand the fall of the regime.

On what we were against, we were united. But clear fault lines had started to emerge in the conversations taking place online and in battered tents and around stationary military tanks. On what we were for, we were divided. Some called for a secular state, few for military rule, and others for Sharia law. After the fall of Mubarak and the hated National Democratic Party (NDP), these fault lines ruptured hard.

In the six years since Egyptians marched for bread, freedom, and human dignity, our allies and enemies, strategies and mechanisms have changed constantly. In the world beyond, the story of post-revolution Egypt is the story of revolution undone, of Islamist opportunism, of military dictatorship. The story on the ground is quite different. It is a story of battlegrounds captured and reclaimed, and we are losing and gaining, inch by inch, some of the power that was wrested from the street, first by the Security Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), then by the short-lived Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi, and now by the military dictatorship of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

We are engaged in a manifestly bloody contest over two things in particular; namely, the media and the judiciary. In this article, I will outline recent developments in the escalating battle between the state and the Egyptian Journalist Syndicate.

Letting go of the rope

In downtown Cairo, just a ten minute walk from Midan el-Tahrir, stands the tall, beige stone building of the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate (EJS.)

For 75 years, the EJS has been responsible for training, accrediting and representing journalists and editors at both state-run and private newspapers, as well as filing legal cases on behalf of members who make allegations of censorship, intimidation, detention, attack and murder. It was under Mubarak, and remains under Sisi, an instrument of repression. Its politics moves with the state, not with the street; though history shows some, but limited, dissent among its members.

The largest state-owned newspapers, Al-Akhbar, Al-Ahram, and Al- Gomhuriya, are known for giving no coverage or delayed and partisan coverage of anti-government activity.

On the revolution, the Syndicate was silent. On the street massacres that killed over a thousand in August 2013, the Syndicate was silent.

Ten days after Mubarak stepped down the head of the EJS followed suit, and many believed the Syndicate was moving towards the revolution’s vision of a free press. Nonetheless, the first post-revolution Syndicate elections in October 2011 saw Muslim Brotherhood backed candidate Mamdouh El-Wali win, and talk of a truly independent Syndicate died down.

In the first 18 months after the revolution the SCAF seized control of the country, promising a handover of power to civilians after six months; a promise they failed to keep. The SCAF tried an estimated 12,000 civilians in military trials in its first eight months in power, more than the number estimated to have been tried during Mubarak’s thirty years.

The SCAF explicitly prohibited the press from publishing critical coverage of the armed forces without permission, and was swift to punish journalists and editors, even raiding television networks, confiscating equipment and arresting journalists, editors and network managers.

Like the Mubarak government before it, the SCAF guaranteed freedom of expression and an end to censorship in its provisional constitution of March 2011 – but not during a state of emergency.

Between 1981 and May 2012, Egyptians lived in the shadow of the dreaded ‘state of emergency,’ suffering a crackdown on freedom of assembly, protest, speech and expression; policy brutality; enforced disappearances; the destruction of independent unions; frequent intimidation and raids against civil society NGOs; misogyny and gender based violence; torture, murder, and the catastrophe of indefinite detention without charge or trial- much of this in in the name of defeating ‘terror’.

On 30th June 2012, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), became the first democratically elected President of Egypt, and the SCAF was dissolved.

It was too soon to celebrate. Where one repressive state organ had atrophied, another had ascended.

The preponderance of Islamists within the Shura Council (the upper house of the Egyptian Parliament) troubled those who had called for a secularist state. Morsi handed control of the media to the Shura Council, and they appointed executives and editors-in-chief for all state publications; continuing the Mubarak-era tradition of making political appointments and ignoring the demands of the revolution to disband the Ministry of Information.

State media subsequently divided into Islamist and anti-Islamist camps. Articles critical of the Muslim Brotherhood were censored, opinion columns vanished from newspapers, and though not all state owned news outlets were overtly pro-government, on most all matters related to the FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood, there was a calm and unnerving silence.

According to Freedom House, more state media employees were subjected to professional investigation during the first six months under Morsi than in the entire 18 months under SCAF. Foreign journalists were also the targets of physical and sexual assaults, and domestic journalists were regularly threatened with accusations of “defamation” or “malpractice.”

Vague talk within the constitution of “respecting…the requirements of national security” left media outlets vulnerable to closure and journalists and editors vulnerable to arrest.

Slowly, the government starved independent media of funding by advertisers, who had been under the government’s thumb since the Mubarak era.

Mohamed Morsi’s government met its end within a year. Article 219 of the 2012 Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt inaugurated Sharia law as the principal foundation for state law, igniting enormous protests across Egypt. When Morsi issued himself sweeping powers, powers even Mubarak had not officially ordained himself with, graffiti artists turned their hands to the city walls and painted Morsi’s face over Mubarak’s. After parliament attempted to integrate civil society NGO’s into government, impose restrictions on foreign funding, and introduce a draft law that effectively banned peaceful demonstrations, the protesters grew in number and ferocity.

Backed by the military, who promised to remove the President in the name of the revolution, Egyptians mobilized for what is estimated to be the largest protest in human history.

The military coup of the 3rd July 2013 brought military rule, and with it all the fanatical patriotism, flag-waving and nostalgia of the 1952 coup d’état. Head of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, orchestrated the coup with overwhelming support from the street, who declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood. A year later, and with breathless enthusiasm, Egypt elected Sisi President; Sisi who had defended the forced virginity tests of female protesters in 2011, Sisi whose crackdown on ‘terror’ in the months following the coup left over 1,000 anti-coup protesters dead.

Photojournalist Mohamed Abou-Zeid, known as Shawkan, was arrested while documenting the worst of the massacres, known as the Rabaa Massacre, on the 14th August 2013. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, described it “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” As many as a thousand people were slaughtered by security forces as they held a sit-in to protest the military coup. Four journalists lost their lives while covering the massacre, making it Egypt’s deadliest day for journalists according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ records. Shawkan remains behind bars to this day.

The Syndicate

In March 2015, Yehiya Qallash, a veteran activist, vocal critic of the government and editor at the state-owned newspaper Al-Gomhuriya, was voted president of the EJS. Qallash has a good reputation, and is open about the shortcomings of the Syndicate, even publically meeting with the families of journalists imprisoned for their affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. This was a highly controversial move considering that, even after the revolution, the EJS had maintained a silence on assaults and arrests of journalists (for the most part), and would gain nothing by associating with suspected Brotherhood supporters in post-coup Egypt.

The trend continued. Throughout 2015, the Syndicate was notably vocal about assaults on journalists, including journalists who were not members of the EJS. The Syndicate even worked with the Ministry of the Interior in order to respond quickly to reports of arrested journalists. Though this collaboration was short lived, and state security continued to arrest and assault journalists arbitrarily and with impunity, the Syndicate appeared to be departing from its habit of turning a blind eye.

Nonetheless, while its membership rules remain corrupt, its journalists in the pockets of advertisers, and its finances dependent on the government, the Syndicate has far to go before it can provide meaningful protection and representation to journalists.

Of the estimated 15,000 journalists working in Egypt, only around 6,000 are EJS members. This is largely due to the fact that the EJS does not represent journalists working in television or radio, or newspaper journalists working part time or freelance. Under a dreaded mandate that has managed to survive every government upheaval, no other syndicates and unions besides the official state syndicate or union are permitted, and thus the law leaves many journalists who do not qualify for EJS membership without official protection or representation.

After the revolution, several independent journalists’ syndicates and news platforms emerged. Those who had been excluded from or disillusioned by the EJS and the state news media chose to build new models that were financially and politically independent, and that also drew on the culture of Tahrir; dialogue, democracy, and a free exchange of ideas. Chief among these new outlets is Mada Masr, which started publishing on 30th June 2013. It describes itself as “Born out of crisis and inevitability…a Cairo-based news website that attempts to secure a house for a dislocated practice of journalism that did not survive in mainstream organizations and their associated political and economic conditions.”

Despite the number, success and popularity of new independent syndicates and news outlets, one cannot help but feel that the power of the EJS lies in its relationship with the state. As an instrument of the government, its infractions hit the government harder, it’s dissent provokes more fear.

Still, it is difficult to imagine how the Syndicate will undo decades of systemic corruption and depoliticize amidst the chilling pro-military mania that has bled into all institutions, while at the same time surviving the wrath of the government. In beginning to loosen the noose, the syndicate may have given the state more reason to hang it out for good.

Lighting the fuse

Seven broken ribs, electrocution to the genitals, both ears cut off, missing nails, every finger and toe broken, fractures to his arms, legs, and shoulder blades, cigarette burns, a brain haemorrhage, stab wounds all over his body, cuts and bruises from kicks and punches and finally, a fatal fracture to the neck. Five to seven days of torture.

On the 25th January 2016, while the country celebrated the fifth anniversary of the revolution, 28 year old Italian student Giulio Regeni vanished in Cairo. Nine days after he disappeared, his half naked body was found in a ditch next to the Cairo-Alexandria Highway. Regeni, who was a PhD student at Cambridge, had been in Cairo for a few months conducting research on independent trade and labour unions. He also wrote articles for Italian publication Il Manifesto under the name Antonio Drius, some of which were critical of the Sisi administration.

The government’s reaction to news coverage of Regeni’s murder was telling. Though the Syndicates three largest newspapers stayed loyal to the President for the most part, speculation about state complicity in Giulio’s murder was rife, especially in the independent and international news media. Unsurprisingly, Sisi publicly denied that security forces were responsible and accused journalists and activists of putting the safety and reputation of the country at risk by spreading false information.

Rome grew increasingly frustrated as Egypt first failed to investigate Regeni’s murder to a standard it considered satisfactory, and then to cooperate with its own investigation. Instead, the police busied itself investigating a Reuters journalist after the agency published a report citing six police and intelligence sources who claimed that Regeni had been detained by police on the day he went missing.

By April, the weight of the government’s growing antipathy towards the press was felt in full. Police threatened, assaulted, arrested, and confiscated equipment belonging to journalists covering demonstrations in Cairo on the 25th of April. For weeks, thousands of protesters railed against an agreement redrawing maritime borders and handing over control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

Though most of the 46 journalists arrested were released, photographer Ali Abdeen was tried in a criminal court and sentenced with 50 others to two years in jail for “publishing false news”, among other charges.

Qallash wasted no time and filed a complaint against the Minister of the Interior and the Cairo Security Directorate on behalf of at least a dozen journalists who had been assaulted during the protests.

The fury with which the government responded was unprecedented.

On 1st May, some fifty plain clothes police officers raided the Syndicate for the first time in its 75 year history. Officers damaged property, physically assaulted people in the building, and arrested Amr Badr, founder and editor-in-chief of the online news portal Yanair (January) and Yanair journalist Mahmoud El-Sakka.

Badr and El-Sakka believed they were being targeted for their critical coverage of the Red Sea deal, and were staging a sit-in at the Syndicate. In the weeks before the raid on the Syndicate, security forces had stormed their homes and issued warrants for their arrest.

The day after the raid, which came to be known as Black Sunday, Qallash called for journalists to mobilize outside the Syndicate. Thousands of journalist assembled. The scene was momentous, and Qallash described it as the “biggest gathering of Egyptian journalists since the Syndicate’s formation.” The crowd grew bigger as representatives from the lawyers, doctors and engineers syndicates joined the demonstration in solidarity. The protesters issued a list of demands, including the resignation of the Minister of the Interior, who Qallash publicly accused of orchestrating the raids, and the release of Badr and El-Sakka.

Within hours, however, hundreds of pro-government civilians arrived at the Syndicate on private buses. Police, who treat pro-government civilians as auxiliary militias who help maintain order, removed the cordons and unleashed the crowd on the journalists. Together, they discharged a torrent of abuse and intimidation, beating, threatening and throwing stones at the journalists.

In the wake of the uproar, the prosecutor’s office issued a gag order on coverage of Black Sunday, and authorities maladroitly denied that the Syndicate had been stormed, claiming that only four police officers had entered the building and that Badr and El-Sakka had given themselves up.

The gag order was roundly ignored, and Black Sunday made national and international news. The government could not have timed the raid any worse. On the 3rd May fell World Press Freedom Day, and the world turned its gaze towards Egypt and the battle at the Syndicate.

In an unexpected display of solidarity, state newspapers Al-Akhbar and Al Gomhuriya’s published the headlines: “A journalistic uprising protesting the Syndicate storming.” and “Raise your head high, you’re a journalist,” the latter echoing one of the chants that could be heard outside the Syndicate.

Al-Ahram, on the other hand, paid little attention to the demonstration, writing that “The majority of journalists did not respond to the calls of the Journalists Syndicate for a General Assembly, as 1,000 at the most showed up… a clear indicator of a great division among journalists regarding what happened two days ago.”

In reality, the press was more united than it had been in a long time. Both state, private and independent media published defiant and celebratory headlines.

Qallash paid the price.

On the 29th May, Qallash was arrested along with the Syndicate Secretary and the head of the Freedom Committee, Khaled Al-Balshy. They spent the night in police custody after refusing to pay their bail (EGP 10,000: approximately £448.)

Police quickly closed in on journalists with chilling and shameless violence. As thousands of secondary school students protested delays to their exams soon after at the Syndicate, which is a historic focal point for demonstrations, hostilities between the street and security forces continue for a second month. Journalists were denied entry, their equipment was confiscated, and both students and journalists became, and still are, targets of physical violence by police and pro-government civilians. A quick succession of events in the months that followed reveal a worrying trajectory.

In early August, the Syndicate announced that it would redraft its “outdated” 46-year-old legislation and membership regulations, which it claimed did not reflect the changes that took place in the country, nor calls from its members for an independent union. Speaking to Ahram Online, Karim Mahmoud, head of the union’s legislative commission, said that the changes would include granting the union power to hold news media organisations accountable for violations of journalists’ rights. Qallash backed the project.

However, on August 9th, Egypt’s parliament approved amendments to a law preventing current and former police officers from providing information, documents or photographs to the media without permission from the Ministry of Interior, effectively imposing a blackout on reporting on police and security matters, a move not altogether unexpected, given the state’s history of issuing media gag orders on stories involving police, such as the one imposed on journalists looking to write about the police officer charged with the murder of activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh in the winter of 2015.

On the 28th August, the Cairo Criminal Court released Badr on EGP 5,000 bail following a successful appeal against the ninth decision to extend his detention.

Less than a month later, on the 26th of September, three photojournalists were arrested on charges of belonging to an illegal organisation and spreading false information as they interviewed members of the public near the Syndicate. The trio, Usama al-Bishbishi, Mohamed Hassan, and Hamdy Mokhtar were detained for 15 days, during which they were beaten and electrocuted.

On the 17th November, President Sisi pardoned 82 prisoners, including one journalist only, Mohamed Ali Salah, who was arrested in 2013 while covering a protest and sentenced to three years in prison under the Protest Law. His pardon came only a month and ten days before he was due to be released.

On the 19th of November, Qasr al-Nil Misdemeanour Court convicted Qallash and Syndicate board members Al-Balshy and Abdel-Rahim to two years in prison for harbouring fugitives, marking the first time in the Syndicate’s history that a Syndicate president was imprisoned. The court allowed the three to pay bail of EGP 10,000 pending the outcome of an appeal. Such was the backlash at home and abroad that President Sisi addressed the matter during an interview with Portuguese TV channel, RTP, stating that Qallash’s conviction had more to do with criminal activity than freedom of speech.

During a general assembly meeting at the Syndicate on 23rd November, Qallash told the journalists who had assembled:

“If I have to choose between being imprisoned and preserving the syndicate’s entity, my colleagues and I would choose being detained, if I have to sacrifice my freedom for the syndicate’s entity, I welcome this because it would be a cheap sacrifice. But you have to protect this entity because it has been targeted.”

Of note was a subsequent comment made by Qallash, in which he attempted to dissuade those seeking to do battle with the government.

“We can’t be involved in a confrontation with the regime as the syndicate belongs to the civil society institutions, and any person who wants a bone-crushing battle between the syndicate and authorities seeks to put the entity in crisis.”

On the 26th December, the parliament passed a law creating the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, a council with the authority to sue or suspend media outlets and broadcasters, investigate funding, and to issue and revoke licenses to publish or broadcast. The council is also tasked with ensuring fair competition between media outlets, and compliance with journalistic ethics and national security requirements. Both the council’s chairman and 12 members will be appointed by the President.

Now we are here, waiting for the outcomes of the many hearings and trials ahead. Qallash, Al-Balshy and Abdel-Rahim await the first session of their appeal in court, which is scheduled for the 14th of January. A court date is yet to be set for the charge of spreading false news about the raid on the syndicate. Will the Syndicate continue to transgress in the face of intimidation? Is the Syndicate capable of revolution? We wait.

*The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that at least 11 journalists have been killed since 2011 in direct reprisal for their work. Egypt is the second worst jailer of journalists in the world according to the CPJ’s 2015 Prison Census.

While the battle at the Syndicate raged on, a court sentenced six people to death, including three journalists who were sentenced in absentia. All were accused of colluding with Qatar to commit espionage. Two of the journalists worked for Al Jazeera, while the third was identified as a journalist at the Brotherhood news outlet Rassd. Al Jazeera journalists are particularly vulnerable in Egypt. In perhaps the most infamous example of the post-coup crackdown, Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed were arrested in December 2013 and charged with being members of a terrorist organisation (the Muslim Brotherhood) and reporting false news. Despite no evidence and eleven mistrials and adjournments, all three journalists were convicted. Greste, an Australian, and Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, each received seven years, while Mohamed received ten. After over a year in prison, all three were released.

Image courtesy: Khaled ElFiqi/EPA

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All writers' views in articles are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Asfar team.

Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)