After a series of high-level meetings to discuss press freedom concerns with Egyptian officials in Cairo this week, it was heartening to hear that journalists Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed had been granted bail after more than 400 days in prison.
The Al-Jazeera case had become a headache for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, attracting international condemnation as the country seeks foreign investment and prepares for elections. A new law allowing foreigners to serve sentences or be retried in their home country also prompted public indignation over unequal treatment. The legislation allowed for the deportation to Australia of Al-Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste. His colleague Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian, had renounced his Egyptian citizenship in the hope of an early release.
"Being an Egyptian should be a privilege not a punishment," Mohamed Fayek, head of Egypt's National Council for Human Rights, said, noting his displeasure at how citizenship has become a central issue. His comments were made during a meeting I attended with Jason Stern, research associate for CPJ's Middle East and North Africa Program.
In addition to speaking with journalists and press freedom groups, we met Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim al-Henaidi; Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat; Assistant Minister of Interior for Human Rights Major General Abu Bakr Abdel Karim; Assistant Minister of Justice for Human Rights Affairs Medhat Bassiouni, head of the National Human Rights Council Mohamed Fayek; and head of Egyptian Journalists Syndicate Diaa Rashwan.
The mission to Egypt came nearly a decade after I first visited to the country to study its media industry. It was disheartening to find that the once-flourishing independent press has largely abdicated its role in pushing against red lines. The space for independent journalism has been squeezed by four years of disruption, terrorism concerns, a struggling economy, and disenchantment with the media from authorities and the public. A nongovernmental organization law limiting foreign funding has increased pressure, with human rights organizations having to reorient or restrict activities.
The developments in the Al-Jazeera case however, are a welcome step. Fahmy and Mohamed, like the majority of at least nine other journalists behind bars in Egypt, were convicted on terrorism charges or for covering the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government declared a terrorist organization in 2013, shortly after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted.
"When facing terrorism and the systematic violence of the Muslim Brotherhood it's difficult to say what's right and wrong," said Fayek. It was a point reiterated throughout our meetings with officials. The widespread belief that the Muslim Brotherhood poses a threat provides justification for a range of restrictions. Sinai, for example, is largely off limits to journalists because of violence emanating from the militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. And a law passed in 2013 limiting the right to protest resulted in the conviction of several journalists and activists.
"There are no red lines, just yellow ones," al-Henaidi, joked during our meeting. The transitional justice minister denied that journalists were imprisoned for doing their jobs. He tried to defend what he described as relatively few journalists in jail in Egypt by comparing his country to Turkey, which he said was the leading jailer of journalists. However, Turkey released a slew of journalists last year meaning Egypt had five more in jail than Turkey when CPJ released its prison census.
Journalists are jailed for criminal charges rather than what they had published, officials constantly told us. No journalist has been arrested without a court order, they said. Oh, and the judiciary is independent and their decisions cannot be interfered with. Such proclamations ring hollow however when criminal charges are used to clamp down on reporting and restrict coverage of protests.
Journalists and press freedom groups told us protests have become too dangerous to cover. Those not registered with the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate are particularly at risk because they lack accreditation that can prove they are press and not a participant. The threats emanate from security forces, police, and a public increasingly hostile toward journalists, according to several people we interviewed and reports. "Anything that identifies someone as a journalist puts you in danger," said a press freedom advocate, who tracks attacks on the press and asked not to be identified out of safety concerns. Journalists said even using a notebook in public can bring unwanted scrutiny. Reporters often use cell phones to take notes in the street so it looks like they are text messaging, they said.
Nearly all the journalists killed or imprisoned in Egypt since Morsi was ousted were covering protests, according to CPJ research. At least six journalists have been killed since al-Sisi took power in July 2013. "When journalists are in back or beside me I can protect them, but if they're in front of me I can't protect them," Assistant Minister of Interior for Human Rights Abdel Karim told CPJ.
One case we raised was that of Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a photographer arrested while covering clashes on August 14, 2013. The 28-year-old freelancer, known as Shawkan, has been in pre-trial detention without charge for more than 500 days. American journalist Mike Giglio and French photographer Louis Jammes, arrested at the same time, were released shortly afterwards, according to reports. Neither al-Haneidi, Barakat, or Abdel Karim were familiar with the case, but all promised to look into it further.
Fayek, from the National Council for Human Rights, said preventive custody has become a punishment in itself. Because judges can reissue pre-trial detention authorization there is no limit on how long someone can be held without charge. "Eighteen months in prison without a trial is too long," Fayek told us, adding that the council wants to change the law but will need to wait until the new parliament is elected.
We hope that Shawkan, who we believe has fallen through the cracks amid the thousands arrested during pro-Morsi protests, will be released once authorities review the facts.
CPJ had been working since last summer to secure permission for a mission to Egypt. To avoid being turned away at the border--as Human Rights Watch staff and Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace were-- we sought a business visa, which was endorsed by State Security. "The mission is in the interest of everyone," Abdel Karim told us as we sat in his office in the imposing Interior Ministry in Cairo on Tuesday.
In a meeting with Barakat on Sunday, the prosecutor general invited CPJ, without prompting, to visit the journalists in jail. "We want you to see the reality on the ground for yourselves," Barakat told us, through a translator.
That he offered such a visit is a step in the right direction. Although authorities were unable to organize it this week. CPJ intends to follow up on the offer at a later date.
"We want the media to show the world what Egypt is going through," al-Henaidi told CPJ through a translator. "We want thousands of journalists to come cover Egypt." The Minister of Transitional Justice did not seem to grasp why international correspondents are deterred from reporting in Egypt, telling us thousands were registered, so a few arrests were not indicative of the actual situation.
A report by the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and conversations we had with several international journalists indicate that correspondents feel conditions for the press have worsened under al-Sisi.
"Human rights should not be reduced to freedom of expression," al-Sisi told the German newspaper Spiegel Online this week, arguing that Western media have been manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood and are unable to separate analysis of Egypt from their own cultural context. We heard a similar view from the al-Sisi appointees we met.
While we welcome the agreement to review the cases raised, it is unclear whether this will result in progress while such a mindset dominates. Concrete action must be taken to release Shawkan and other imprisoned journalists, investigate the murder of Al-Hosseiny Abou Deif, who was shot covering protests in 2012, and improve conditions so journalists can work without fear.
The government's willingness to meet with CPJ represents an important shift in its readiness to engage on press freedom. But much remains to be done, and we will keep pushing.