Journalists carry Yehia Qallash, head of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, at a protest against restrictions on the press in Cairo on May 4. (Reuters)
Journalists carry Yehia Qallash, head of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, at a protest against restrictions on the press in Cairo on May 4. (Reuters)

Egyptian government clash with Journalists Syndicate marks turning point in censorship fight

A standoff this week between Egyptian authorities and the country’s influential Journalists Syndicate could mark a turning point in the fight for media control that has raged since before President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office.

On Wednesday, thousands of Egyptian journalists responded to syndicate leaders’ call for an emergency general assembly at the group’s downtown Cairo headquarters, a rare show of unity which came despite personal risk of legal harassment and physical assault. According to news reports and video footage posted to YouTube, police surrounded the building, looking on while government supporters hurled rocks, insults, and threats at the journalists, including “Butcher them, Sisi!” News reports said the counter-protesters assaulted some journalists and tore their clothes.

The journalists were protesting a police raid on the syndicate Sunday, in which two journalists were arrested. According to the syndicate and news reports describing the raid, dozens of plainclothes policemen stormed the building, assaulted the syndicate’s private security officers, and broke furniture in the lobby. (The Interior Ministry denied using force). Journalists’ Syndicate President Yehia Qallash called the raid “unprecedented.” The syndicate has been a destination for protests for 67 years, and until Sunday, the interior was a safe haven from police, according to news reports.

“It is a turning point. It could take us to dark ages, to dictatorship,” said Ibrahim Eissa, a host for Al-Kahera Walnas TV who was until recently a strong supporter of el-Sisi.

On Tuesday, which was World Press Freedom Day, Qallash called on members to gather Wednesday to restore “the dignity of their syndicate” and demand the release of their colleagues.

“It was a wonderful scene,” Hanan Fikri, a syndicate board member, told CPJ, in describing Wednesday’s demonstration. “No political bias or affiliations [mattered]. All were present in a spirit of unity and insistence to raise the ceiling of our demands in order to ensure our dignity is preserved.”

The journalists’ anti-Sisi sentiment represents a wider public discontent with the president and a disenchantment among Egypt’s political elites, in the wake of recent statements in which he urged Egyptians not to listen to anyone but him regarding the country’s failing economy. According to news reports, el-Sisi also blamed the media for turning the killing of a young Italian doctoral researcher, Giulio Regeni, into a problem for Egypt–instead of recognizing what many believe, which is that the case is connected to a mounting epidemic of police brutality.

Furthermore, Sunday’s raid was only the latest in a long series of moves to censor, intimidate, and arrest Egyptian journalists, according to CPJ research. Egypt is the world’s second-worst jailer of the media, according to CPJ’s most recent annual prison census.

One recent catalyst for journalists’ anger was el-Sisi’s decision to give control of two Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia, and his handling of the aftermath. His administration tried to suppress criticism and coverage of large-scale protests of the deal in April by threatening critics and detaining or harassing scores of journalists.

In one example of apparent censorship, Ahmed el-Naggar, the chairman of the government-owned daily Al-Ahram, posted his weekly column on his Facebook page on April 17 after his column did not appear in the newspaper for two consecutive weeks–leading to reports that he had been censored.

“We are living inside the pages of a George Orwellian nightmare. And it’s not even well written,” Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, now in exile in the U.S., told CPJ.

In a rare move, Al-Ahram criticized the government in its lead editorial on Monday. “Experience has taught us what the security services unfortunately don’t realize, which is that the people are the one who willingly choose their own destiny, not leaders, and if the people are out for their own freedom, no one can stop them, even the most notorious and security barricades and guns,” the newspaper said.

The situation is a marked contrast from late 2014, when the heads of 17 Egyptian state- and privately-owned dailies, including Al-Ahram, pledged to support state institutions, further polarizing the already partisan media. At the time, I stated in a blog post, “Nationwide acts of solidarity from Egypt’s polarized and beleaguered media are unlikely under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s tight control.”

Today, Arabi 21 writer Tamer Abuarab, who attended the show of unity at the syndicate on Wednesday, told CPJ, “I am inspired by such a historic time.” Abuarab first raised the alarm about increasing threats to Egypt’s journalists in 2014 with an article titled, “A message from a scared person.”

If journalists needed any further reason to band together, it may have been an accidental leak by the Interior Ministry of its plan to deal with the media in the wake of the syndicate raid. The leaked memo–an email the ministry’s public relations department sent to journalists by accident, according to Al-Ahram–urged the ministry to deny wrongdoing, to send “security experts” to friendly media shows, and to accuse the syndicate leader of harboring fugitives. “The ministry cannot retreat from this position now, because to retreat would mean a mistake had been made, and if there was one, who would be responsible and who would be held accountable?” the memo read.

CPJ’s calls and emails today to the Interior Ministry went unanswered.

On Wednesday, journalists at the syndicate issued a series of demands including legal protections against censorship, resignation of the interior minister, and an apology from el-Sisi, among other things. The group resolved to hold a general assembly on Tuesday to discuss a general strike in case its demands are not met, Ahram English reported.

But today, el-Sisi gave a speech in relation to the nation’s wheat harvest, in which he ignored the request for apology by the syndicate and instead focused on his “accomplishments,” according to news reports. El-Sisi asserted several times during the course of his speech that he isn’t “scared” and urged Egyptians to “take care because there are people working on creating divisions between us,” Mada Masr reported.

With journalists now showing solidarity, and the president determined not to back down, the stand-off appears certain to deepen. The question is, what price will journalists pay for taking a stand?

Asked if he still feels scared today, Abuarab told CPJ, “Yes, even more. I am now sure I could be put in jail for political reasons like my colleagues.”