Egypt: press freedom at a crossroads

By Sherif Mansour

The military-backed regime in Egypt has an answer to criticism—blame the messenger. But journalists are fighting back.

Under Threat: Egyptian Press in Peril from Committee to Protect Journalists on Vimeo

The current Egyptian government is trying to roll back time, reversing one of the gains of the revolution of 2011 by cracking down on the press and forcing independent and critical voices into silence, exile, prison—or worse. But local and international voices are desperately resisting.

With six journalists killed in relation to their work in Egypt last year, the country was ranked third most dangerous in the Risk List of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which highlights countries where press freedom is in decline. Dozens of reporters have been detained since the military ousted the former president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 and at least 11 journalists are still in jail. The government tries to appease the international community by arguing that the country is on track for democracy, justifying restrictive measures under an “anti-terrorism” banner.

Testimonies

Today CPJ is releasing a documentary, Under Threat, produced jointly with See Media, an Egyptian production company managed by veteran journalists. The film examines the killing and imprisonment of several journalists through personal testimonies.

Linked to it is an appeal for discussion on social media at #EgyptLastWord. The hashtag is to encourage independent voices to speak up, so that when the Egyptian government discusses aid and investment with international partners it does not enjoy the last word.

In the face of criticism, Cairo has made some concessions. In September, ahead of the first trip to the US by the commander-turned-president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, three journalists were freed.

When al-Sisi was pressed during the trip about the sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to long prison terms in June, he said he could not interfere with the independent judiciary—although he has exerted influence in several previous cases. He may yet do so: reports are variously circulating that the president intends to pardon the Al Jazeera staff and others after their final verdict and that a new draft law will allow him to hand over such foreign detainees to their governments.

False choice

Meanwhile, journalists in Egypt are speaking up against all odds. At the weekend, hundreds signed a statement rejecting the false choice offered by the government between their freedom and fighting terrorism.

In the statement, which at time of writing had 588 signatories, the journalists said: “Standing up to terrorism with a shackled media and sealed lips means offering the nation to extremism as an easy prey and turning public opinion into a blind creature unaware of the direction from which it is being hit or how to deal with it.”

In doing so, they defied many of their own editors, who had pledged almost blind support for al-Sisi’s government on 26 October. Of their editors’ viewpoint, the journalists said: “It represents a betrayal of the readers’ right to knowledge … [and] the nation’s right to a free press that confronts terrorism equally as it confronts tyranny.”

Penal code

The authorities should release all journalists in prolonged detention without charge, including the photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid (“Shawkan”) who has been held for more than 400 days. The government can also amnesty convicted detainees like Abdel Rahman Shaheen, a correspondent for Freedom and Justice News Gate, who was sentenced in June to three years in prison.

Most importantly, it should amend the penal code to ensure that journalists cannot be prosecuted or detained for doing their jobs. This will be the ultimate test—one that first Morsi and now al-Sisi have to date failed.

Sherif Mansour is the Middle East and north Africa program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

This article was originally published November 6, 2014 on opendemocracy.net, and is republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 license.

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