Blog   |   Canada, Egypt

John Greyson detention exposes Egypt's arbitrary policy

John Greyson (tarekandjohn.com)

Egypt is going through a tough transition and journalists are paying a considerable toll. Since the July 3 removal of President Mohamed Morsi, at least five journalists have been killed, 30 assaulted, and 11 news outlets raided. CPJ has documented a total of 44 cases of detention, and at least five journalists remain behind bars. The attacks on the press come amid a broad campaign by the interim military-led government to limit coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood and force the media to toe the official line.

Most of those affected belong to critical or independent outlets viewed by the government as sympathetic to the Brotherhood, or they work for outlets from countries which criticized Morsi's ouster, such as Al-Jazeera and Turkish channels. Turkish journalist Metin Turan, who has been behind bars for nearly two months, appealed to the Turkish Foreign Ministry last week from jail via Twitter for mediation in his case by the United Arab Emirates, an ally of the Egyptian interim government.

The case of Canadian filmmaker John Greyson stands somewhat at odds with this trend. Greyson is an award-winning director who was not even planning to cover events in Egypt; he was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Greyson was on his way to Gaza on August 16 with a doctor, Tarek Loubani, to explore making a movie about humanitarian work, according to his family, lawyer, and colleagues. Failing to get to their destination because Egypt had closed the border to Gaza, they decided to check out Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations near their hotel, according to news reports. When police cracked down on the protesters, both men followed their instincts: Loubani helped some demonstrators who were bleeding from bullet wounds while Greyson documented this on video, according to a first-hand account published by relatives and friends campaigning for their release. In the same message, Greyson and Loubani said Egyptian police arrested them later when they stopped to ask for directions.

Egyptian authorities subsequently said video found on Greyson's cameras may be enough to file charges against him. An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman told Reuters that both men would be charged with "participating in an illegal demonstration." He also indicated that prosecutors were considering espionage charges against the two Canadians based on "surveillance equipment" found in their possession.

Those accusations were rebuffed by Loubani's brother Mohammed. "By unashamedly accusing Tarek of providing medical care to severely wounded Egyptians, and John of filming the unfolding carnage, the Egyptian Government have only acted to tarnish their own image and credibility," Mohammed said in a statement posted by the release campaign. "Providing medical aid to the wounded and filming historic events as they unfold is what doctors and filmmakers do," he said.

Greyson's sister Cecilia told CPJ that the equipment in Greyson's possession totaled a laptop, camera gear, a home wireless router, and a toy helicopter--all would have been used in filming at the Gaza hospital. "It is absolutely ridiculous to assume they will use this for spying. This is part of the heightened sense of xenophobia that's sweeping Egypt," she said.

The two were subject to horrible conditions in jail, as they described in their message released by relatives and friends: "We were: arrested, searched, caged, questioned, interrogated, videotaped with a 'Syrian terrorist,' slapped, beaten, ridiculed, hot-boxed, refused phone calls, stripped, shaved bald, accused of being foreign mercenaries." All imprisoned journalists face similar conditions in Egypt.

Pressure from Canadian and international authorities finally achieved results early Sunday morning when the Egyptian government released Greyson and Loubani. The Canadian government and several civil society organizations and volunteer groups had called for their release. A letter of support was signed by 311 cultural and academic figures from around the world and a petition was signed by nearly 150,000 people online. Egypt's syndicate for movie makers and one of its most renowned movie directors, Yousi Nasrallah, had addressed the prosecutor general asking for Greyson's release. 

But the celebrations were short-lived, as the pair was prevented from leaving the country later Sunday. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said they may not be free to leave because they are still under investigation, CBC reported.

Greyson and Loubani have not been formally charged, but they have said they are eager to respond to the Egyptian government's accusations: "We would welcome our day in a real court with the real evidence, because then this footage would provide us with our alibi and serve as a witness to the massacre."

As we join the call for Greyson and Loubani to be allowed to return home, we reflect that other journalists--most without the same caliber of international support-- are also subject to abuse by Egypt's police and army. When will the Egyptian government stop using legal harassment and arbitrary detention to punish journalists for doing their work?

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