September 24, 2015
His Excellency Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi
Office of the President
Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt
Via fax: +202 2 391 1441
Via email: [email protected]
Dear President el-Sisi,
The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to express concern about the deteriorating climate for press freedom in Egypt, days before you address the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week.
Last year, when you addressed the UNGA, you said that you were building a “new Egypt,” one that “respects and enforces the rule of law, guarantees freedom of opinion for all, and ensures freedom of belief and worship to its people.” You also said that the aim of the new Egyptian constitution was to “build a better today and a brighter tomorrow.”
President el-Sisi, your statements stand in stark contrast to the actions taken by your government over the past year. While we welcome the presidential pardon of the Al-Jazeera journalists on Wednesday, the reality remains that journalists are being arrested, harassed, and threatened in relation to their work at unprecedented levels in Egypt.
Mr. President, when you arrive in New York and speak in front of the General Assembly next week, you will seek to highlight your administration’s accomplishments. But the failure to meet the commitments you made last year could undermine your message. Journalists often face accusations of “tarnishing Egypt’s image” in the course of their reporting, but the truth is that nothing has hurt Egypt’s image as deeply as the government’s actions to quash all forms of criticism.
In February, CPJ staff members met with senior representatives of your government and discussed their concerns about the press freedom environment in Egypt, including the imprisonment of journalists. In our meetings, we consistently heard that Egypt’s new constitution protects freedom of the press and that no journalists are in jail for their work.
But our careful research shows that the number of journalists imprisoned in relation to their work in Egypt has only increased since we conducted our annual prison census in December. At least 18 journalists are currently behind bars in Egypt in relation to their work, according to CPJ data. Several of those in jail have reported mistreatment, abuse, and horrible conditions in prison, according to their letters and their families. And yet your government has taken no action to resolve their cases.
In February, you vowed to release from prison any detainees who had been wrongly jailed. Yet freelance photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, has been imprisoned since August 14, 2013, the same day he covered the dispersal of the sit-in at Raba’a Al-Adawiya in Cairo. His detention has exceeded the two-year legal limit on pretrial detention, according to his lawyer. Shawkan has been diagnosed with hepatitis C, and his health is deteriorating in prison. Only recently has his case been referred to trial, which is due to begin December 12.
Three other journalists–Abdullah el-Fakharany, Samhi Mustafa, and Mohamed el-Adly–received life sentences in a mass trial last April. They were convicted on charges of “spreading chaos” and “spreading false information” in their coverage of the dispersal of the Raba’a Al-Adawiya sit-in. Their appeal process is due to begin on October 1.
We call on you to ensure the release of all journalists who are behind bars in relation to their work. Members of the press everywhere should be able to work openly and freely without fear of reprisal, harassment, or imprisonment.
In fact, because of these threats, the space for critical speech has closed dramatically. Bassem Youssef, who received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2013, is an Egyptian satirist who regularly commented on current events in one of the region’s most popular TV shows. He lives in the U.S. now and recently told his critics on Facebook that he had received death threats to force him off the air. He said that his producer’s father was arrested on charges of aiding terrorism in 2013–the night Youssef’s show returned to the air–and was told that his arrest was specifically because of Youssef’s work. Youssef said that his family in Egypt still receives threats each time he says something critical in conferences or on Twitter.
At least 10 journalists have been killed in relation to their work in Egypt since the beginning of the uprising in early 2011. And while none of them have been killed since you took office, no one has been held responsible in any of the cases. We urge you to open an investigation into the killing of these journalists and identify and hold the perpetrators to account. The only way to break the cycle of impunity is to bring to justice the killers of journalists, which Egypt has failed to do.
President el-Sisi, this is the reality that journalists face in your country, and words and proclamations will not change this reality. What is needed is concrete action to build the “brighter tomorrow” that you envisioned for your country. We call on you to release all journalists from prison and ensure investigations are launched into journalist killings in recent years.
Alaa Youssef, Spokesman of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi
Abu Bakr Abdel Karim, Assistant Minister of Interior
Medhat Bassiouni, Assistant Minister of Justice for Human Rights Affairs
Yasser Reda, Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to Washington
Amr Abdellatif Aboulatta, Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the United Nations
Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations