Independence means isolation for journalists in Sisi’s Egypt
By Ursula Lindsey
When President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office in Egypt in 2014, after leading the army’s ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, he promised to restore peace and prosperity through strong leadership.
But in the years since, Sisi’s idea of strength has been to silence those who disagree with him, and to treat criticism or the documentation of abuses as a threat to national security. His government has developed unprecedented new strategies to limit free speech, which include exploiting and encouraging polarization within the media – turning journalists against each other – and undermining the public’s trust in the media, in concert with familiar censorship tactics such as withholding advertising from media outlets to force them to self-censor.
Sisi has presided over a foundering economy, a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and a series of erratic, unaccountable policy decisions, and has responded to the inevitable questions and complaints of Egyptian citizens and the media with further repression. While tens of thousands of Egyptians serve time as political prisoners, Sisi’s security services have kidnapped, tortured, and detained citizens in secret locations, sometimes forcing them to confess to fabricated crimes.
Journalists have been on the frontline of the struggle to defend crumbling freedoms and the rule of law, and Egyptian authorities are using any means at their disposal to silence, intimidate, and punish reporters who do not reproduce official propaganda. Journalists who report on human rights abuses, who cover protests, or who report criticism of government policies are treated as disloyal enemies and targeted for retribution.
That retribution takes many forms, from using favored media to smear and attack “disloyal” journalists to withholding advertising revenue from media outlets that have been critical of the government or have simply reported on its failures. Other tactics represent an unprecedented escalation of older means of repression, such as imprisoning, sentencing to death, deporting, or otherwise harassing journalists. In its determination to prevent the kinds of mass mobilizations that took place during the Arab Spring, the Sisi government will not tolerate any dissent and has shown deep suspicions of regional media outlets it sees as destabilizing influences.
“The mainstream media is still very faithful to the president and very propagandistic,” Shahira Amin, a journalist who resigned from state TV during the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, said. Due to her own critical reporting, Amin said she is no longer allowed to work in television in Egypt.
In 2016, Amin said, “critical voices started to emerge, reflecting growing disappointment” in Sisi, who she contends “hasn’t delivered the security and stability he promised.” Such criticism is unacceptable to a president who has admonished the Egyptian public, saying: “Listen only to me.” The result is a continuous spiral of instability, dissent and further repression. “The criticism has increased,” Amin said. “But also they’re trying to crack down even harder.”
Despite the censorship and repression, the country’s lively independent media has struggled on, in many cases moving to online platforms that are more difficult to control, though not immune to acts of retribution. A prison census released by CPJ on December 1, 2016, found that Egyptian authorities were holding at least 25 journalists behind bars due to their reporting — the highest in the country since CPJ began recording data on imprisoned journalists in 1990. The threat of imprisonment is part of an atmosphere of relentless intimidation in which authorities issue gag orders on sensitive topics and pressure media outlets to censor critical reports. Entire news outlets, such as Al-Jazeera and the Turkish Anadolu Agency, have been banned from operating or forced to close their offices, according to CPJ research.
In the spring of 2016, three journalists were sentenced to death in absentia, and others were deported without any legal justification, held in preventive detention beyond the legal limit of two years, or charged with crimes such as terrorism, vandalism, murder, or publishing false news. The Sisi government also targeted the Journalists’ Syndicate, entering its premises to arrest two reporters and bringing charges against the group’s leaders after they spoke out in solidarity with their detained colleagues.
According to CPJ research, Egypt has become one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world, behind only Turkey and China in 2016. Journalists are frequently arrested by security forces in nighttime raids on their homes, and some have faced patently fabricated charges, been tortured in custody or seen their families harassed. Journalists have been targeted simply for reporting on protests and human rights abuses, such as the deadly dispersal of a sit-in at the Rabaa El Adawiya square in Cairo in August 2013 — a massacre in which at least 600 supporters of deposed President Morsi were killed by security forces, according to published reports and figures kept by Egypt’s Ministry of Health.
In April 2015, CPJ documented three journalists sentenced to life in prison. Those and other journalists were accused of “fabricating pictures and scenes that imply fatalities and injuries among demonstrators, preparing statements in foreign languages and publishing all of this outside Egypt to imply that security forces used excessive force and violated human rights,” according to the Alkarama human rights nongovernmental organization.
Another journalist who was imprisoned for documenting what happened at Rabaa is news photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, who was arrested on August 14, 2013, while photographing the security operation on the square for the agency Demotix. Shawkan, who addressed an Egyptian court for the first time in May 2016, told the judge, “I am in jail for doing my job.”
The emaciated 27-year-old had by then been in detention for more than 1,000 days, a violation of Article 143 of the Code of Criminal Procedures, which calls for the immediate release of any detainee held in pre-trial detention for more than two years without being sentenced. “We ask for his release at each session,” lawyer Taher Abu Nasr said in July 2016, “but the court does not respond.”
“There is no evidence against him. He shouldn’t have spent one day in jail,” Shawkan’s brother, Mohamed Abou Zeid said in a telephone interview in July 2016.
Alongside 738 other defendants, including the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Shawkan went on trial in December 2015, charged with illegal protesting, the use of force, illegal arms possession, vandalism with “a terrorist intent,” belonging to a banned group (the Brotherhood), attacking police forces, and murder — charges that carry a potential death penalty, according to Shawkan’s lawyer and Amnesty International reports.
In a March 2015 letter from prison posted on Amnesty International’s website, Shawkan said he has been beaten during his detention and denied access to medical treatment for his injuries. “I share a cell that measures three by four meters with 12 political prisoners,” he wrote. “We have no access to sun or fresh air for days or weeks at a time. My detention has been renewed ever since my arrest for 600 days. I have not been charged with any crime. I have been imprisoned without any investigation into the fabricated charges I am facing. I am a photojournalist, not a criminal. My indefinite detention is psychologically unbearable. Not even animals would survive in these conditions.”
In a December 2015 letter, Shawkan wrote: “Of course after more than 850 days in the black hole without fairness and justice, I am lost in limbo. Just because I was doing my job as a photographer. I am in jail without even knowing why am I here? I’m sorry to tell you that ‘I became a person full of hopelessness.'”
That hopelessness is shared by his family. “He is in a bad psychological and physical state,” said his brother, who fears that the authorities, having kept Shawkan in jail for more than two years before bringing charges, will now drag out the trial for many more years. “The lawyer can’t do anything, civil society can’t do anything, nobody can do anything — he will just die,” Mohamed Abou Zeid said.
Around the time Shawkan was speaking in his own defense in court for the first time, the three journalists received death sentences in a separate case. Ibrahim Helal, the former news director at Al-Jazeera Arabic, Alaa Sablan, a reporter at Al-Jazeera, and Asmaa Al-Khatib, a news editor at Rassd News Network, were accused, alongside former President Morsi and seven others, of attempting to share state secrets with Qatar. In May 2016, the three journalists were sentenced to death in absentia.
Al-Jazeera Arabic supported the uprising against former President Mubarak, and in the years after, provided a platform and sympathetic coverage to the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar, the wealthy emirate where the network is based, was widely viewed as backing the Islamist group.
Hours after the military detained Morsi, soldiers stormed Al-Jazeera Arabic’s offices in Cairo, forcing the channel to go off the air. Following its fall from power, the Brotherhood was classified as a terrorist group, and Qatar and Al-Jazeera were accused of plotting alongside the organization to destabilize and take over the country. In an infamous case, 10 Al-Jazeera reporters were convicted of aiding a terrorist organization. Seven were tried in absentia; among those held in Egypt, one was deported and two who remained were granted presidential pardons after an international solidarity campaign and years of lobbying on their behalf.
Relations between Egypt and Qatar have remained deeply strained. In February 2015, after Qatar questioned Egypt’s military operations in Libya, Egyptian officials accused Qatar of “backing terrorism” and the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper ran a headline calling Qatar (alongside Turkey and the United States) part of “The Triangle of the Forces of Evil [that] Spreads Chaos and Destruction.”
Ibrahim Helal, the Al-Jazeera news director tried in absentia, believes some in the Egyptian media and government find it easier to blame Qatar and Al-Jazeera for supposed plots than to face the country’s many problems.
“They live in this illusion of enemies fighting the country,” Helal said, “instead of facing the reality that the country is failing because of lack of democracy and human rights.” Helal, who lives in exile in Doha, added, “If it was a democratic country I would try to go back to defend myself.” But, he said, “you know how many people are dying in custody in Egypt today.”
Among the few institutions that have continued to speak out on behalf of imprisoned or otherwise targeted reporters is the Journalists’ Syndicate, which, because it has offered refuge and solidarity to journalists, has become a target itself. The government’s animosity toward the organization became clear after an incident involving two islands in the Red Sea that were ceded by Egypt to Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2016.
The unexpected announcement regarding the ceding of the islands triggered a wave of nationalist indignation in Egypt, and growing frustration with Sisi culminated in the first significant public protest since the beginning of his term, on April 15, 2016. Columnists and TV presenters also engaged in unprecedented criticism of the president and his government.
The authorities reacted swiftly, arresting hundreds of the protesters, many of whom were later sentenced to three- to five-year jail terms. The government also punished journalists who covered the demonstrations and placed a gag order on the island transfer and the protests surrounding it. It has resorted to such media blackouts with increasing frequency on topics ranging from the murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni to military operations in the Sinai.
Editor Amr Badr and reporter Mahmoud al-Sakka, both of the news website Yanair, were charged with spreading false news, inciting the public and plotting to overthrow the government because of their coverage of the island transfer and the protests. After their homes were raided by police, the two journalists sought refuge inside the Journalists’ Syndicate offices in central Cairo, planning to camp out there and publicize their plight.
The Syndicate has long been a “safe zone” for journalists and for freedom of speech, hosting press conferences on sensitive topics and gatherings, including protests, on its front steps. The police have frequently blocked off the surrounding streets and cordoned off the area, but refrained from entering the building, which under Egyptian law requires an order from the public prosecutor and the presence of the syndicate head. In keeping with Sisi’s increasingly drastic measures against the media, breaking with precedent and the law, police raided the building and arrested Badr and al-Sakka. Eyewitnesses said dozens of national security officers forced their way past the Syndicate’s security guards. “This is the first time that this has happened in Egypt’s history,” Khaled El-Balshy, editor of the website Albedaiah and head of the syndicate’s Freedom Committee, said.
The security forces’ actions led to a sit-in and a statement issued by journalists calling for the resignation of the minister of Interior and the release of all jailed journalists. The ministry’s response was that only four officers had entered the syndicate offices and that Badr and Sakka had willingly turned themselves over to their custody (the authorities also claimed they had an order from the public prosecutor, but others say agents did not produce one at the time). Emails from the ministry that included directions on how to handle the crisis were later accidentally leaked, which suggested that security experts be sent to “friendly” TV talk shows to promote the ministry’s version of events. One email argued that the ministry “cannot retreat from its 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?”
At first, almost all Egyptian media outlets — including state-owned ones — expressed indignation over the police raid. But within days many outlets began distancing themselves from the syndicate and blaming its leadership for allegedly politicizing and escalating the conflict. Some commentators said the syndicate was overstepping its bounds and being manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood. For offering refuge to their colleagues and for publicizing the police’s actions, El-Balshy, as well as syndicate head Yehia al-Kalash and union secretary-general Gamal Abdel-Reheem, was charged with harboring wanted fugitives and spreading false news that destabilizes and incites public opinion.
El-Balshy believed that the prosecution against him and his colleagues was meant to weaken the syndicate, which had expressed reservations over a proposed new press law, had lobbied on behalf of imprisoned journalists like Shawkan, and had denounced dawn raids, punitive detentions, and forced disappearances of reporters.
“The point is to put pressure on the syndicate, to prevent it from playing its role and defending its members,” El-Balshy said.
Jail terms and death sentences are the worst threats against reporters, though Egyptian journalists trying to report critically and independently face other state-sponsored intimidation as well, including being monitored, threatened, or targeted with smear campaigns. Deportation and travel bans have also become increasingly common. Local reporters may discover at the airport that they have been banned from travel, while foreign journalists are more likely to be detained as they enter the country, or to be unexpectedly expelled.
On June 27, 2016, TV host Liliane Daoud was arrested at her home in Cairo. Daoud, who is British-Lebanese, was the presenter of the Egyptian talk show “The Full Picture” on ONtv, one of the few remaining platforms in Egyptian media on which one could hear critical discussions of government officials and policies. Daoud’s contract with ONtv had been terminated earlier that day.
The police who entered her house and ordered her to leave with them immediately said their orders had come directly from the Interior Ministry and from “the president’s office,” Daoud afterward told reporters. She was not charged with any crime. As the mother of an Egyptian child (Daoud’s ex-husband is Egyptian) she has a legal right to reside in Egypt, but she told The New York Times she had been threatened with deportation several times in the previous year and the authorities had declined to renew her residency, citing security concerns. Members of her production team were also threatened with arrest, she said.
An unnamed security official told The Associated Press on June 28, 2016, that Daoud had crossed “red lines” in her program, in which she had dedicated episodes to jailed activists, prison conditions, and forced disappearances.
“Despite the difficult circumstances we’ve been working under for the last five years,” Daoud told Misr Live News, “we never expected the ceiling of freedom to fall as low as it has now.”
Lamis El Hadidi, a TV presenter who has been a vocal supporter of both former President Mubarak and President Sisi, said on the air that when considering Daoud’s case and other instances of journalist intimidation, “We are very anxious. Are these signs? Are they signals? Are we supposed to stop talking? To just keep quiet?”
Given the vocal and widespread public support for the army and for Sisi after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, many observers find it remarkable how much repression has been unleashed against reporters and how hard pro-government interests have worked to further consolidate and monopolize the media field.
The channel for which Daoud formerly worked had recently been sold by businessman Naguib Sawiris to steel tycoon Ahmed Abu Hashima, who is a Sisi supporter and a major donor to his Long Live Egypt fund. When Sisi visited New York City in September 2015, Hashima was reportedly the main financier of a pro-Egypt campaign that featured ads in The Wall Street Journal and billboards in Times Square. Hashima also has a majority stake in Al Youm Al Sabaa newspaper and is said to be planning other media buys, according to numerous media reports.
Egypt is a highly concentrated media market, and as the independent news site Mada Masr has documented, the businessmen who own the country’s top eight private TV channels enjoy cordial relations with the government. The majority are major donors to the Long Live Egypt fund.
The businessmen know it is in their interest to express support for and loyalty to Sisi. In November 2015, a heavily armed, masked police unit dragged Salah Diab, the owner of Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, from his bed and arrested him on charges of possessing unlicensed firearms. Pictures of Diab in handcuffs were taken by a photographer from Al Youm Al Sabaa, the tabloid that Hashima owns and that regularly gets scoops based on security tips.
Observers wondered if the raid was caused by Al Masry Al Youm‘s coverage or some offending remark Diab had made about Sisi. The newspaper tycoon lent credence to the second conjecture when he published a column upon his release, worrying that something had damaged his relationship with the president — “a word of mine” — and insisting that he had not meant to criticize and that he loved the president “like millions of loyal Egyptians.”
The majority of the country’s most respected columnists and TV hosts, who headlined hard-hitting political talk shows in the years following the 2011 uprisings, have quit or had their columns and programs cancelled in recent years. And the security services have gone beyond blacklisting certain reporters and guests: They now routinely pressure media owners and leak information — including recordings of personal phone calls – in their targeting of activists and journalists.
According to an investigative report by activist and journalist Hossam Bahgat, officers from Egypt’s General Intelligence agency have written pseudonymous columns in the Egyptian media as well as run a media front company that acquired a news website and produced a TV show. Bahgat has since been detained and questioned over his reporting on the army, and now faces trial on charges related to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the NGO he founded.
State media and privately-owned media run by businessmen eager to curry favor with the presidency, or aligned with the security services, are often the first to attack other outlets and reporters if they publish critical stories. “The smear campaigns are worse than ever,” Shahira Amin said. “If you’re a government critic, you’re accused of being a spy and a traitor.” Amin has been accused by Egyptian media outlets close to the government of promoting homosexuality, being an atheist and being “a friend of the Jews.” She was also accused, she says, “of being in a shadow government formed in Berlin to topple President El-Sisi.”
When Amin confronted the editor of a state-owned magazine that published some of these rumors, she says he told her: “Well, if you’re not with us, you’re against the state. In war times there is no in-between.”
After a meeting with EU officials to discuss media freedoms in Egypt, in which Amin noted the repression reporters face, a colleague took her to court, accusing her of spreading false news, tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad and damaging its interests. (Amin was eventually acquitted).
These episodes illustrate how Egypt’s media have been intimidated, silenced, infiltrated, co-opted, and incited to attack fellow journalists. By relentlessly questioning journalists’ patriotism, amalgamating their actions to terrorism and espionage, the authorities have also broken down public trust in them.
“The past three years of intense propaganda has turned every last member of the Egyptian population, you feel, against journalists,” said Nour Youssef, a reporter who has worked with The Associated Press and The New York Times. “You can feel it with every story — people genuinely believe you are a spy, are scared to speak, are aggressive. It’s increasingly hard to talk to normal people, not just government officials.”
Ursula Lindsey writes about education, culture, media and politics in the Arab world.