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Human rights advocate confronts fear and intimidation in Egypt

As Executive Director of the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and lawyer, Gamal Eid often finds himself campaigning for justice for imprisoned bloggers and journalists, including Al Jazeera reporter Huwaida Taha, who is appealing a six months jail sentence incurred as a result of a documentary on torture she filmed in Egypt. Then in May, Eid himself was threatened with five years in prison after a Judge filed a bogus lawsuit against him, citing "extortion". HRinfo's website, which houses information from 141 members in 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as well as IFEX's Arabic site, looked doomed for closure. Eid talked to Kristina Stockwood, IFEX Outreach Coordinator, about his case, free expression in the region in general, and why HRinfo will never give up the fight.


Q: You recently feared you might go to jail for five years and HRinfo would be shut down after a judge launched a case against you. What would happen if this occurred?

The fear is still there - the judge's fabricated cases are still ongoing. We are also suffering from the bias of the public prosecution. No matter what the result may be, HRinfo will continue. Many colleagues are willing and capable of managing the network and ensuring its continuity. HRinfo will not shut down unless the police force us to do so. And even then we would still find a way to save the site and our more than 15,000 documents.

Q: What is the hardest aspect of your work?

Meeting the expectations of the victims of freedom of expression violations seeking HRinfo's support. In the face of continuing severe violations and the failure of the public prosecution to act, many victims are despairing. We have a real need for victories to give us hope.

Bloggers in Egypt and the Arab world are now facing widespread harassment that has made some stop writing all together and others so afraid of the authorities that they have asked us and other organisations to stop interfering. We are now looking into how to provide protection so that this situation does not further deteriorate.

Q: Why has the situation in Egypt worsened when it seemed to be improving in recent years?

The government is attempting to "normalise" the situation by undermining the limited freedom that the democratic movement and independent press in Egypt have achieved. It is also being vengeful towards the symbolic institutions that have persistently widened the margin of democracy in the past few years, such as judges, bloggers and some independent media outlets.

Violations in Egypt at this time are also related to impunity. That is why activists for democracy often find themselves in a tough and dangerous predicament. Since freedom of opinion and expression is the train on which democracy rides, those working in journalism and media are always the first victims to fall.

The worst Arab countries for freedom of opinion and expression violations are Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Tunisia is one of the worst in terms of spreading misleading news and prejudice in media throughout the region that promote it as a liberal and democratic country. The state of human rights in Egypt definitely has an impact on these other Arab countries, given the country's influence in the region. News, whether good or bad, travels fast in most countries - that is why the role of the press and human rights organisations are very important. Their resistance and struggle should mean that in turn they are able to help activists in other Arab countries.

Q: You have recently done trial monitoring in Syria. Do you think your attendance at the trial of dissident and journalist Michel Kilo influenced the decision to give him a lesser sentence than other activists had received?

It is easy for the Syrian authorities to question or contest the objectivity of European or U.S. activists because they can paint it as a conspiracy against Syria. However, when the criticism comes from Egyptian activists and journalists, the effect is much stronger and the task of contesting or dismissing it much more difficult. This was very apparent when I was at the trial with colleagues, and the court decided to cancel Kilo's hearing on 7 May. [He was later sentenced on 13 May to three years in jail on charges of “weakening national sentiment” for signing a declaration in May 2006 calling for improved relations between Syria and Lebanon.]

Q: If regional groups got together to do one big campaign, what would it be? What tactics could they use?

It is imperative that groups within the region cooperate more, because that would help affect Arab public opinion and expose non-democratic regimes. This should not contradict the roles of international organisations, who impact Western governments, which in turn can pressure Arab governments.

The main mission for regional groups should be to end the impunity that undermines freedom of the press, and to defend journalists' rights to criticise and write without fear of being prosecuted. Following that would be a focus on changing repressive laws. Campaigns defending journalists, writers and bloggers is one of the most important duties of these organisations, whether through demonstrations or sit-ins in front of embassies, sending letters to prisoners of opinion, uncovering the truth about the environment in these countries, as well as exposing lies that officials are asking us to believe.

Links:

HRinfo (available in Arabic and English): http://www.hrinfo.net/

IFEX Arabic information service (http://www.hrinfo.net/ifex/)

HRinfo alert about blocking HRinfo, IFEX and other websites: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/83328/

Syrian dissidents' cases: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/83396/

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (English): http://ifex.org/tunisia/tmg/

Freedom House assessment of MENA press freedom: http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/press_release/MENA_FTP_07.pdf

IFJ report on Middle East press freedom crisis:
http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?Index=4967&Language=EN

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