On November 2, Egyptian investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat is set to go on trial over a tweet. In the December 2020 post on Twitter–where he has more than 260,000 followers–Bahgat, who is also the executive director and founder of local rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, criticized the former president of the National Election Authority, Lashin Ibrahim, for alleged corruption during the country’s 2020 parliamentary elections.
Seven months later, the state prosecutor’s office summoned him for interrogation based on a complaint about the tweet by the acting president of the election authority and charged the journalist with insulting the National Election Authority, spreading false news on electoral fraud that undermines public interest, and misusing social media.
If convicted, Bahgat could face up to two years in prison and a fine of 500,000 Egyptian pounds (US$32,000), according to the Egyptian cybercrime law and the penal code.
In a country where most imprisoned journalists languish in pretrial detention, Bahgat’s referral to trial is unusual. Over the last 10 years, Egyptian authorities have routinely locked up journalists for months and even years as they await trial.
This is not the first time Bahgat has faced legal trouble. In 2011, Bahgat and other directors of local human rights organizations were accused of illegally receiving foreign funding. In 2016, a Cairo court froze Bahgat’s assets and banned him from traveling as part of that case.
In 2015, authorities detained him for three days and charged him with spreading false news over a journalistic investigation he published for independent news website Mada Masr on the military trial of Egyptian officers accused of planning to overthrow the government. As of today, Bahgat still faces charges in both cases.
Ahead of Bahgat’s trial, which was postponed from September, CPJ spoke with him via phone about the new case against him, the challenges facing Egyptian journalists, and press freedom in the country. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CPJ emailed the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and the National Election Authority for comment on Bahgat’s case but did not receive a response.
Many of the journalists in Egypt who are charged with spreading false news or misusing social media end up taking down their social media accounts. You’re still on social media and you didn’t take down the tweet. Why?
Because I don’t believe it violated any of the opaque laws I am being charged under. And my lawyers agree too! It was simply a specific comment about the former president of the National Election Authority, who had just passed away, to note the legacy he left behind.
However, I became more cautious of what I post online ever since I found out that authorities can use older tweets as evidence against you in court, and I don’t want more cases filed against me. I am the executive director of a human rights organization, and these types of cases tend to be distracting, exhausting, and very costly. Authorities do this on purpose to discourage any potential partners from working with our organization, and to demonize us in the eyes of the public.
Why do you think you’re being referred to trial over this old tweet?
This is a question that authorities need to answer, but I believe that this tweet really provoked those in charge of the National Election Authority. It became clear that this is a political decision from higher up, and not just a judicial order issued by a state prosecutor investigating a case. My only explanation for this is that authorities want to send me a certain message or punish me for my overall activities in journalism and human rights. It does not make sense that the only motive behind all this is to punish me for one tweet, especially since it did not violate any laws. And if authorities fairly investigated it, they will find that it does not violate any of their unjust laws.
What do you expect at your court hearing?
We are not sure yet as we still need to review the court documents for this case. It also depends on which judicial department and judge is investigating the charges and who will be assigned to the case. The Egyptian judiciary grants judges a wide discretion, which allows them to hold short expeditious trials, or to repeatedly postpone reviewing a case making these trials drag for years, which is what happened with the civil society case that has been under investigation since 2011.
How would you characterize the state of press freedom in Egypt right now?
Today, each step that gets taken towards the production of independent journalism in Egypt has become very difficult if not impossible. It is now very dangerous for anyone to be even seen holding a camera in the street. Field reporting exposes journalists to great risks including being arrested, and a lot of journalists have been arrested while covering events on the ground. Even sources, including officials, are afraid to speak publicly, so it became very difficult to speak to sources. There is also no law that protects the right to access information which makes reviewing documents and obtaining information for news stories impossible.
Not to mention the economic difficulties facing media organizations in Egypt today, which affects both state-owned and privately owned organizations. This led to limited employment opportunities in the sector, low salaries, and lack of promotion opportunities or formal training. It is also important to note that the national journalists syndicate has become very weak in protecting its member journalists, and they can only help a few. Even with these few journalists, there isn’t much the syndicate can do for them, and a lot of these journalists have been in prison for years.
What are the main challenges facing Egyptian journalists today?
As CPJ has documented, Egypt has become one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world, which means that it has become very easy for any journalist to be placed in pretrial detention without being convicted of a crime. The so-called “revolving door policy” is also one way to ensure that journalists and political prisoners never leave prison. It means that authorities can file additional charges against people in prison to extend their pretrial detention pending investigations into these new charges.
However, I believe the hardest challenge affecting the press sector today, and [one that] has destroyed journalism as a profession in Egypt, is the lack of independent platforms where journalists can publish their work. Because even if I was able to overcome all those obstacles and traps to publish a powerful news story, I wouldn’t be able to find a platform that is ok with publishing brave stories. There may be two independent news websites that would be ok with that, but authorities have blocked access to them in the country several years ago. This alone discourages many journalists from pursuing a lot of news stories.
Tell us about your work in journalism, what topics do you cover?
I started working in journalism from 1998 until 2002 when I started working in human rights. I went back to working in journalism in 2013, where I mostly published in Mada Masr, one of the blocked news websites in the country. Since then, I have been focusing on political and investigative journalism on issues like the management of parliamentary elections, the acquisition of Egyptian media companies by state intelligence, military prosecution, and corruption under former president Hosni Mubarak.
My work is known because I try to investigate certain topics that journalists are usually warned to stay away from. This includes military trials, and the role of state institutions in the economy, media, and in politics. However, the state of press freedom in Egypt is much worse than it was in 2013, so it is not as easy to publish anything anymore today.
Since 2016, you have been banned from traveling outside the country and accessing your bank account. How does that affect your life?
This is my sixth year under a travel ban and asset freeze, which has caused me a lot of difficulties, since it affected my income directly. I am also under the constant threat of imprisonment at any time. The best way to cope is to live day by day and not have any expectations from these trials, because they could take years. And this is exactly what happened with my previous cases.