Egyptian security forces raid news network offices, arrest director

New York, July 16, 2015–Egyptian security forces have arrested Yahya Khalaf, the director of the privately owned Yaqeen news network, and are holding him under investigation for alleged crimes linked to terrorism, according to the network, a government statement, and news reports.

Police raided the offices of Yaqeen at around 1 p.m. on Tuesday, arresting Khalaf and briefly detaining staff member Ibrahim Abu Bakr, according to the network and Mustafa Khalaf, the director’s brother, who spoke to CPJ. Yaqeen is an independent online network that runs a YouTube channel and publishes news on its website and Facebook page. Police seized office equipment, including cameras and computers, the sources said.

Prosecutors ordered Khalaf to be held in detention for 15 days for investigation, according to Yaqeen. He has not been officially charged.  On Wednesday, he was questioned by prosecutors and accused of possessing video editing equipment without a license and broadcasting videos that incite violence against the state, according to news reports.

Today, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior released a statement on its Facebook page saying the raid on Yaqeen’s offices was part of a crackdown on the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, that Yaqeen was a media wing of the Brotherhood, and that it was publishing false news to incite violence against the state. The ministry also said Khalaf was at the head of this illegal media outpost, which was disguising itself as a news network.

The ministry also said that among the equipment it seized was a computer that had videos and images of Muslim Brotherhood protests, as well as bodies of Muslim Brotherhood members who had been killed in shootouts with security forces.

“If possessing images and videos are a crime, every journalist in Egypt faces a dark future,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “We call on Egyptian authorities to release Yahya Khalaf immediately and to cease trying to suppress news coverage with imprisonment and intimidation of the press.”

The raid and arrest come two weeks after the government-aligned Egyptian news website Al-Watan reported that Yaqeen had employed members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The reports cited unnamed sources in the Ministry of Interior. Yaqeen and Khalaf denied these reports as well as any affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yaqeen has been previously been targeted by Egyptian authorities. In February 2014, police raided the news network’s offices and arrested a number of journalists who were later released on bail, according to the network and local press freedom group Journalists Against Torture Observatory. Ahmed Gamal Ziada, a photojournalist for the network, spent over two years in prison after he was arrested while covering clashes between student protesters and police in December 2013. He was released in May after a special terrorism court acquitted him of charges of participating in an illegal protest, vandalism, and assaulting police officers, according to news reports.

Egyptian authorities were holding at least 18 journalists in jail on June 1, according to a census conducted by CPJ. Most of the journalists were accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The accusations against Khalaf come in the midst of a widespread backlash from press freedom groups about a draft anti-terrorism law that awaits President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s approval. Under Articles 26, 27, and 29 of the draft law, journalists would face jail terms for publishing material that “incites violence against the state” in media or online–the allegations for which Khalaf is being investigated.

The Egyptian cabinet announced on Wednesday that it had revised Article 33 of the proposed anti-terrorism law to replace jail time with fines of up to $65,0000 against journalists convicted of publishing “false information on terrorist attacks that contradict official statements,” according to news reports.

“Replacing prison terms with a fine heavy enough to bankrupt most journalists does not sufficiently address the startling blow this bill would deal to freedom of the press,” CPJ’s Mansour said.

CPJ this month sent a letter to el-Sisi urging him not to sign the law.

  • For more data and analysis on Egypt, visit CPJ’s Egypt page.