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Free expression in Egypt under threat as journalists languish in prison

Journalists, writers, civil rights activists, and independent or critical voices in Egypt are being targeted by security services for their reporting or peaceful activism, PEN International said.

The worldwide organization of writers expressed alarm about an escalating crackdown on dissent in Egypt, which has seen several journalists arrested in recent months, some of whom have reportedly been tortured or otherwise ill-treated in detention.

PEN International is calling on Egypt's interim government to comply with its international obligations to respect freedom of expression, and to release anyone held solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Independent investigations into all reports of torture or other ill-treatment should be carried out without delay, and anyone found responsible for abuses should be brought to justice

Amongst those currently detained are Al Jazeera (English) journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed, who will face their first trial hearing on 20 February 2014 charged with links to a “terrorist organisation” and “spreading false news”. PEN fears for their safety in detention following reports of ill-treatment and lack of medical care.

Egypt is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which provides for freedom of expression which may only be limited in specified circumstances. Any restrictions must be necessary, proportionate and provided for in law.

Background

After mass protests on 30 June 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party of Pre­­sident Mohamed Morsi who had come to power through democratic elections one year earlier, General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi deposed Pre­­sident Morsi on 3 July 2013.

Constitutional Court judge Adly Mansour was appointed as interim president. Mansour issued a Constitutional Declaration setting out a roadmap, which included drafting a new constitution and elections. A new constitution came into effect on 18 January 2014 after a national referendum, which provides improved provisions for freedom of expression and bolsters press freedom.

However the situation on the ground has seen widespread violence, with peaceful protests violently suppressed by police and thousands arrested for their alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned in September 2013 and declared a terrorist group on 25 December 2013, the day after a new Anti-Terror law was passed. Hundreds have also been arrested under the repressive protest law issued by the interim president, Adly Mansour, on 24 November 2013.

Armed groups have escalated attacks in North Sinai killing scores of police and soldiers, and independent reporting from the region is severely restricted.

Journalist Ahmed Abu Deraa, an award-winning correspondent from the Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm, was arrested on 4 September 2013 and accused of publishing false information and trespassing on a military zone without a permit. He received a six-month suspended sentence from a military court for entering a military zone without authorization and was released on 5 October 2013.

In this polarized and unstable environment, the media has become a strategic target in the struggle to control access to information. Whilst violations against secular and independent voices escalated under Morsi's government, the army-backed interim government has systematically targeted foreign and Egyptian media affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood or regarded as sympathetic to it, notably the pan-Arab TV station al-Jazeera and its sister organization, Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera English correspondent Peter Greste, an Australian national, Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, and Egyptian national Baher Mohamed were arrested on 29 December 2013 after being accused of illegally broadcasting from a hotel suite.

Peter Greste is accused of collaborating with “terrorists” by talking to Muslim Brotherhood members. Al-Jazeera English Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed are accused of the more serious offence of membership of the Brotherhood.

On 29 January 2014, they, along with 17 other journalists (some in absentia), were referred to trial on the charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation; calling for disruption of the law and preventing state institutions from conducting their affairs; broadcasting false news to support a terrorist group; and harming the national interest of the country. Their trial will start on 20 February 2014.

In two open letters written from prison and published on 25 January 2014, Peter Grest has detailed the harsh conditions the three are held under, and refuted any notion that he has carried out anything except “normal journalistic endeavours”.

Also recently detained was Egyptian documentary film-maker Hossam al-Din Salman al-Meneai, who was arrested without a warrant with American translator Jeremy Hodge on 22 January 2014 from their apartment in Cairo. Hodge was released on 26 January 2014 and returned to the USA.

Meneai was released without bail on 9 February 2014 but he could still face trial on charges of “spreading false news and endangering the stability of the nation. Hodge has stated that he witnessed Meneai being beaten and that a police officer put a gun to his head and threatened to pull the trigger.

The reasons they were detained are still unclear, though Hodge says initial questioning was focused on Meneai's work as a documentary film-maker. Meneai is believed to have been working on a documentary about Egyptian Copts, who have faced unprecedented persecution by Islamists, particularly since July 2013.

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