When Al-Jazeera journalists Mohamed Said Fahmy, Hisham Abdelaziz, and Bahaa Eldin Ibrahim Neamatalla were arrested on terrorism charges in Egypt between 2018 and 2020, their families decided to keep quiet about their detention. They feared that public attention would backfire, leading Egyptian authorities to prolong their relatives’ time in custody or worsen their prison conditions.
But in February and March of this year, the three families went public about the arrests in the local press – allowing CPJ to include the three Egyptians in its annual tally of imprisoned journalists.
The story of why the three families spoke out sheds a light on the anguishing choices facing relatives of imprisoned journalists worldwide, who must decide whether public attention will help or hurt their loved ones. In the case of the three Egyptian families, their decision took place against the backdrop of Egypt’s shifting relationship with Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera, and is where the broadcaster is based.
Qatar is a longtime supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and provided billions of dollars in aid to the Egyptian government after the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi became president in 2012. After Morsi was deposed in a 2013 coup, Egypt banned the Brotherhood and quickly went after Al-Jazeera, accusing it of interfering in the country’s internal affairs by promoting the Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda.
On July 3, 2013, the day that Egypt’s military seized power from Morsi, it raided the office of Al-Jazeera Mubasher, one of Al-Jazeera’s channels, to interrupt its coverage of pro-Morsi protests. The following month state security forces raided and closed the office of Al-Jazeera Arabic, another Al-Jazeera channel, and banned the channel and its affiliates from operating in the country.
In 2017, the year that Egypt and several Gulf countries officially cut ties with Qatar for allegedly supporting terror groups – a charge Qatar denies – the Egyptian government blocked access to Al-Jazeera’s affiliated websites. Egyptians can still watch the Al-Jazeera television channels broadcast from Qatar, but can only access the websites via Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Fahmy, Abdelaziz, and Neamatalla, are just three of the many Al-Jazeera journalists who have been detained by Egypt on terrorism and false news charges in the country’s years-long campaign against the broadcaster. Their families and local journalists told CPJ that they were arrested in retaliation for their work with Al-Jazeera.
The Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, the prison system, and the prosecutor general’s office, did not answer CPJ’s emails requesting comment on its measures against Al-Jazeera and its journalists.
A relative of Abdelaziz told CPJ that the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Mubasher producer was arrested in Cairo International Airport on June 20, 2019, and charged with membership in a terrorist group. The relative asked not to be named for fear of government reprisal.
“Families of other imprisoned journalists in Egypt warned us about going public with his case,” said Abdelaziz’s relative. “We feared that if we did so, they would keep Hisham for a longer time in custody, and that they would go after our family like they did with other journalists’ families. Hisham’s parents are old and subjecting them to state harassment is out of the question.”
In early 2020, Abdelaziz’s family members spoke briefly about his case on social media and in interviews after an order to release the journalist was revoked, but quickly went quiet again for fear that authorities would retaliate against him.
The family revisited this strategy in February 2021, when high-profile Al-Jazeera journalist, Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa was unexpectedly freed after four years in pre-trial detention on false news and terrorism charges. Abdelaziz’s family spoke publicly about his case and his poor health in an interview with the website of Al-Jazeera Mubasher.
“After Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa was released, we felt that it might be safe to call for Hisham’s release again in the press and on social media platforms. It was also time to let everyone know that Hisham is losing his sight and hearing because prison authorities are refusing to give him the surgeries he needs,” said Abdelaziz’s relative.
Gomaa’s release was also the reason that the families of Neamatalla, arrested in 2020, and Fahmy, arrested in 2018, decided to speak up, according to Neamatalla’s wife and a press freedom advocate who is in touch with Fahmy’s family. The advocate spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.
Neamatalla, a Doha-based producer at Al-Jazeera Mubasher channel, was arrested at an Egyptian airport on February 22, 2020. Neamatalla’s wife Mona Mahmoud told CPJ by phone that Gomaa’s release raised hopes that her husband could get out too, leading her to campaign for his release on social media and give interviews to Al-Jazeera Mubasher and local independent news website Darb in March 2021.
“We never thought that Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa would ever be released,” she said. “So once he was freed we had to go public about what happened with my husband, hoping that he too would be released soon.”
Around the same time, Fahmy’s family gave an interview to Darb to highlight the journalist’s pretrial detention and call for his release.
The families credit Gomaa’s release in part to Egypt’s thawing relationship with Qatar. In January 2021, the two countries and several Gulf states resumed diplomatic ties with Doha after the United States pushed for a united bloc to confront Iran.
Kotb al-Arabi, the director of the regional London-based right group the Arab Media Freedom Monitor, told CPJ by phone that it makes sense for relatives of imprisoned journalists to seize upon the warming ties to try to get their family members out of prison.
But he believes that Egypt wants to keep Abdelaziz, Fahmy, Neamatalla, and other Al-Jazeera journalists – including many whose family members have been vocal for years – in prison as diplomatic leverage with Qatar. “They are holding these journalists hostage,” he said.
Indeed, Egypt has been sending mixed messages on its stance toward the broadcaster. In July, it allowed an Al-Jazeera anchor to appear in a live broadcast from Cairo, the first since 2013. But the next month Egypt arrested another Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Mubasher journalist, producer Rabie al-Sheikh, at Cairo International Airport. The following day authorities charged him with spreading false news.
“These are all conflicting signs concerning the new Egypt-Qatar relations, and it doesn’t tell us much about what would happen to those journalists,” said al-Arabi.
In addition to Fahmy, Abdelaziz, and Neamatalla, CPJ added to its census two other Al-Jazeera journalists jailed before 2021, but not included in previous counts because CPJ did not learn of their arrests until this year.
Al-Arabi told CPJ that he believes that there are likely more journalists imprisoned in Egypt whose families are too afraid to go public about their arrests. For other families who made the difficult choice to speak out, there is no turning back.
“The only thing we can do is get louder,” said Abdelaziz’s relative. “It doesn’t guarantee that Hisham will be free. But it is the only thing we can do.”