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Egypt's imprisonment of journalists at an all-time high

Egyptian authorities continue to imprison critical journalists while openly pledging media freedom. Egypt has the highest number of journalists behind bars since CPJ began keeping records, most of them accused of affiliation with a banned group. A special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists

Egyptian journalists tape their mouths and hold signs during a 2014 protest
Egyptian journalists tape their mouths and hold signs during a 2014 protest

AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File

This statement was originally published on on 25 June 2015.

“We are not going to replace Islamist fascism with a civil one,” Ahmed al-Mosallamany, spokesman for the transitional president, told CPJ in August 2013, a month after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Mosallamany also promised constitutional changes that would improve press freedom in the country.

But today, almost two years later, journalists face unprecedented threats in President Abdelfattah el-Sisi's Egypt.

A prison census CPJ conducted on June 1, 2015, found that Egyptian authorities were holding at least 18 journalists behind bars in relation for their reporting, the highest in the country since CPJ began recording data on imprisoned journalists in 1990. The threat of imprisonment in Egypt is part of an atmosphere in which authorities pressure media outlets to censor critical voices and issue gag orders on sensitive topics. Entire outlets, such as Al-Jazeera and the Turkish Anadolu news agency, have been banned from operating or forced to close their offices, according to CPJ research.

In a February 2015 mission to Egypt, CPJ spoke to high-level officials, including the prosecutor-general and the minister of transitional justice, who denied that Egypt was holding any journalists in jail in relation to their work. But CPJ research shows that the government of el-Sisi, who was elected president in May 2014, has used the pretext of national security to crack down on human rights, including press freedom.

In the midst of what authorities called a war on terrorism following Morsi's removal from office, the government banned the Muslim Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist organization. Since then, the Egyptian government has indiscriminately charged journalists and political detainees with belonging to the illegal group. Most of the journalists in prison on June 1, 2015, are accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have called the ban on the group political retribution by the authorities.

Due to heavy restrictions placed on journalists in Egypt, entire regions are severely under-reported. One example is the Sinai peninsula, where little is known about the ongoing conflict between militant groups and Egyptian security forces or about the toll of the violence on residents who have faced forced evictions and reprisal from all sides. Journalists attempting to cover news in the peninsula have been denied entry at military checkpoints, while others who live there face threats from both the authorities and militant groups, according to local journalists who spoke to CPJ. “Journalism is over in the Sinai,” one veteran reporter who has worked extensively in northern Sinai and asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told CPJ. “The only reporting we can do is [to] tell the army's story. Anything else is a prison wish.”

The arrests of journalists in Egypt are often violent and involve beatings, abuse, and raids of their homes and confiscation of their property, according to CPJ research. Their prison cells are often unclean and overcrowded. In letters from prison, some journalists wrote that they often do not see sunlight for weeks; others described the torture of prisoners, including the use of electric shocks.

Journalists imprisoned in Egypt have often gone missing for periods of time, their whereabouts unknown to lawyers or family members, CPJ research shows. Their court hearings sometimes take place without notice to the journalist or lawyers. Other times, prison authorities refuse to allow the journalist to attend the court hearing or sentencing.

Egypt's courts have been criticized by regional and international rights groups for conducting sham trials, and for handing out extreme sentences. Six of the journalists in CPJ's census were sentenced to life in prison in a mass trial of 51 defendants. Several others are being held in pretrial detention, and have not had a date set for a court hearing. “Don't think that being in jail is a manly thing, like they show you in the movies,” Egyptian photographer Shawkan told another Egyptian photographer during a prison visit in 2014. “Every day in jail, I learn more about subjugations, about injustice.”

More than half of the journalists on CPJ's census worked online. The Internet, which could be considered the only space left for free speech and independent reporting in Egypt, is becoming increasingly dangerous.

With no parliament in place since 2012 and parliamentary elections repeatedly postponed, el-Sisi has had full legislative authority. The president is expected to sign into law a draft cybercrime bill, framed as anti-terrorism legislation, which allows law enforcement agencies to block websites and pursue heavy prison sentences against Internet users for vaguely defined crimes such as “harming social peace” and “threatening national unity.” The potential implications for bloggers and journalists are dire, according to regional experts focusing on information systems and human rights. The bill has been endorsed by the cabinet, and is awaiting el-Sisi's approval to come into law, according to news reports.

Some of the journalists included in the report were arrested prior to CPJ's last census on December 1, 2014; for six of those cases, the organization was unable to confirm at the time that they had been arrested in connection with their work and not with political activism. In some cases, the detainees did not want to be publicly identified as journalists for fear of it hurting their chances of release; in others, the journalists' colleagues and relatives told CPJ that they had been afraid to speak out at the time, fearing reprisal against themselves or worsening conditions for the detainee.

The release of the journalists in the high-profile Al-Jazeera trial in February 2015 lifted hopes of the families and colleagues of other journalists imprisoned in the country and led to more information about the detainees being available. In some cases, CPJ was able to obtain detailed information about imprisoned journalists from others who had been forced to flee the country and into exile.

A recent example of CPJ's difficulty in obtaining information about journalists imprisoned in Egypt is the case of two journalists working for the Kuwaiti satellite station Al-Shahed who were allegedly arrested in April while covering attacks on the Media Production City outside of Cairo. Egyptian authorities and Al-Shahed have not responded to CPJ's calls and inquiries seeking information about the journalists' names and whereabouts. The journalists do not appear on our census as CPJ was unable to confirm if the journalists were still in custody on June 1, 2015.

CPJ sent a letter requesting comment, as well as a list of the imprisoned journalists, to Egyptian Attorney General Hisham Barakat, Minister of Transitional Justice Legal Adviser Yasser Safwat, and Egyptian Assistant Minister of Interior Gen. Abu Bakr Abdel Karim. CPJ did not get a response.

Click here for capsule reports on each journalist in jail in Egypt on June 1, 2015.

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