Using arrests, intimidation and a virulent social media campaign, the Egyptian government is making it increasingly difficult for journalists, foreign and Egyptian, to do their jobs.
In response, journalists have launched a campaign in solidarity with 20 journalists working for the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, who are accused of aiding a terrorist group and harming the national interest, according to Egyptian prosecutors.
A private Egyptian television channel aired a video this week that documented the arrest and questioning of Australian Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Egyptian and Canadian citizen – both from Al Jazeera English, who were arrested in late December. The video is accompanied by ominous music from the 2013 science fiction movie Thor: The Dark World. A third journalist, cameraman Baher Muhammad, was arrested at his home. The three are among the 20 who have been indicted for supporting terrorism or being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The full list has not been released and some of the journalists have reportedly already left Egypt.
Al Jazeera condemned the arrest of its journalists and charged the Egyptian government with trying to demonize them. It is the latest fight between the Qatar-based channel, which is seen as close to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt’s interim government, which has launched an all-out campaign against the now-illegal group since it overthrew president Mohamed Morsi in July. Hundreds of Morsi supporters have been killed and thousands arrested since then.
Foreign journalists based in Egypt expressed particular concern for the treatment of Fahmy, who had a broken shoulder before he was arrested. They said he is being held in solitary confinement in the Tora Prison complex’s maximum security building, also known as the Scorpion Prison, which is usually reserved for terrorists – and is sleeping on the bare floor, which is exacerbating his condition. The Canadian government has tried to intervene as well, but has not succeeded.
In a recent letter published on his Facebook page, Greste describes his confinement in Tora Prison, and says his fellow inmates have given him books, pens and papers.
“This is not just about three Al Jazeera journalists,” he writes. “Our arrest and continued detention sends a clear and unequivocal message to all journalists covering Egypt, both foreign and local.”
Another journalist, Rena Netjes, who is Dutch, fled Egypt this week after she received information that she was about to be arrested, allegedly for visiting Fahmy before his arrest. The detentions have created a climate of fear among members of Egypt’s foreign press corps.
“A lot of us are worried about what these arrests portend and there’s a great deal of concern about whether or not it is safe to report there these days,” Sheera Frenkel, BuzzFeed’s Middle East correspondent, told The Media Line. “You have to think twice each time before you go out. Now, when I cover a protest, I always look for an escape plan.”
She says the mood on the streets has turned ugly, and the government has encouraged average Egyptians to attack journalists.
“I do worry about getting attacked on the street,” Frenkel, who left Egypt a week ago after a three-week reporting trip, said.
“There is a lot of incitement. In the Egyptian press, the government calls us spies and terrorists.”
Local journalists are nervous as well. One Egyptian reporter, who asked to remain anonymous because of concern for his safety, said he was arrested once in 2011 and interrogated.
“Since then I try not to get involved with the police or military,” he told The Media Line. “There is this atmosphere that I can’t go and report on most things I see out on the street. I always get harassed by locals or cops when I am reporting.”
All terrorism suspects, including journalists, can be held without charges for 15 days – a period that can be renewed indefinitely.
Human rights groups are concerned by restrictions not only on press freedoms, but on all freedom of expression including the right to hold demonstrations.
“There is a climate of crushing repression in Egypt today,” Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line.
“They’ve got this law on protests which is draconian. The core liberties of freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are under heavy assault.”
Frenkel agrees. She has been visiting Egypt frequently since 2006, and says it is harder to report there than ever before.
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