On Saturday, while thousands of Egyptians were celebrating the third anniversary of the 25 January Revolution in Tahrir square, Daily News Egypt reporter Basil El-Dabh was experiencing a “citizen arrest” for recording the celebrations. The angry mob questioned his presence, roughed him up – along with a female freelance journalist- then handed them to the police, who later released them.
On the other side of the square, in Talaat Harb square, DNE’s Fady Ashraf and Abdel Halim AbdAllah were covering a peaceful protest that was forcibly dispersed by the police using teargas and birdshot. Ashraf was hit with birdshot, but not injured.
Such are the every day risks for reporters in Egypt when protests break out.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in its annual report released on 30 December 2013, rated Egypt the third most dangerous county in the world for journalists, following Syria and Iraq.
Considering that Syria is in a civil war and the extremely tense situation between Iraq’s various factions, Egypt’s position raised many questions on the current environment in which journalists work.
Journalism troubles, a brief history
Under ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s rule (1981-2011), the status of journalism was not faring well. Promises of reform and increased protection for journalists were harped on by the consecutive cabinets, but rarely enforced.
Journalists were targeted in various methods: wrongful arrests and accusations, torture, kidnapping and even judicial punishment for publishing articles criticising Mubarak or his National Democratic Party.
Journalists were also repeatedly accused of heresy and risked jail for their views on religion.
The situation between the regime and journalists worsened in the new millennium as – following public pressure – more independent papers were granted publishing rights causing an influx of news criticising the regime. Meanwhile, different opposition movements were working among the youth at the grass-root level, such as Kefaya (Enough), established in 2004, and 6 April Youth Movement, established in 2008, calling for protests. As the frequency of demonstrations increased, so did the dangers faced by reporters.
On 25 May, 2005, a new method of targeting female journalists who cover protests – along with protesters – emerged in the form of sexual terrorism. Mobs of dozens of men would surround the female journalist, isolating her from the crowd, tearing up her clothes and sexually violating her. Despite the heavy security presence that day, the security forces did not try to intervene to stop these attacks and complaints filed by the women violated were discarded by the prosecutor general’s office, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) report in 2013 commemorating the eighth anniversary of what has been known in the media as the “Black Wednesday”.
The situation continued to deteriorate for journalists. In its annual report on the status of freedom of speech in Egypt, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) dubbed 2008 the year of “an open war on freedom of expression”.
ANHRI detailed the various problems impeding freedoms, including obstacles facing journalists in Egypt, primarily torture and kidnapping on the hands of state authorities. Cases filed against said authorities were intercepted by the general prosecutor’s office and not given due attention, the report added. The situation got worse with “smear campaigns and intimidation tactics” targeting journalists combined with lawsuits spearheaded by the then ruling Mubarak’s National Democratic Party as well as imposing “heavy fines” on different media outlets.
The violations under the Mubarak regime continued and mounted as the demonstrations started spreading. On 6 April 2008, Mahalla witnessed mass demonstrations against deteriorating living conditions, viewed by many analysts as the spark for the 25 January Revolution. As clashes continued between protesters and security forces for two days, five Egyptian journalists, including an American, were arrested covering the events and the subsequent protests on 9 April, only to be released later. Rami Al-Minshawi, one of the arrested journalists, was accused by the police of participating in, rather than covering the protest, according to the report.
The situation worsened for the press in Egypt in 2010, with a massive crackdown on media personnel prior to and during the November parliamentary elections. In its annual report, Freedom House changed Egypt’s freedom of the press status from “Partly-Free” to “Not Free” as a result of the Mubarak regime’s suppression; satellite channels were banned, reporters harassed and arrested while performing their jobs as well as filing “spurious charges” against media personnel. The report stressed the use of “the Emergency Law, the Press Law and penal code provisions circumscribe the media”. Nineteen journalist and bloggers were arrested in January on their way to Upper Egypt following sectarian classes; renowned blogger and journalist Wael Abass was charged with” selling communications services without a licence” and sentenced to six months in jail in absentia, while former newspaper editor, Magdy Hussein – who had been imprisoned for “political activism” but should have been due for standard early release – was imprisoned for an additional year and fined after a 14-year-old defamation case regarding an interior minister was resurrected in July.
The report also approximates that nearly 1,000 activists and journalists were arrested in the lead-up to elections, while Human Rights Watch documented the detainment of 10 reporters who attempted to cover the elections proceedings. Journalists were barred from entering polling stations and CPJ documented the arrest, harassment and physical assault that reporters were subjected to during the above-mentioned elections; several had their equipment confiscated and destroyed along with their notes. CPJ also noted that some security personnel posed as journalists to “spy “on activists and civil society representatives.
Despite the Press Law, which was amended in 2006, and constitutional guarantees of the freedom of the press, journalists were persecuted for “dissemination of ‘false news,’ criticism of the president and foreign leaders, and publication of material that constitutes ‘an attack against the dignity and honour of individuals’ or an ‘outrage of the reputation of families’.”
Post Mubarak press freedom
Following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, despite improved conditions-with the flourishing of “independent media” according to Freedom House’s annual report, the transitional period headed by the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) witnessed mass attacks on journalists. During the 18-day sit-in in Tahrir Square and related protests, attacks targeting journalists covering the uprising reached an unprecedented level; a journalist was shot dead by a sniper while filming the protests and several news bureaus such as Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera and Al-Shorouk were raided, according to Freedom House’s annual report on the year 2011. Reporters from the Associated Press, Cable News Network (CNN), Al-Arabiya, Danish TV, the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC), and others were attacked, had their equipment confiscated or destroyed, and were temporarily detained by the police. CBS television journalist, Lara Logan was also sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square while covering the protests, by a mob of men on 11 February. Later that year, CPJ documented 50 cases of assault on journalists covering the then-escalating anti-SCAF demonstrations in November and December alone.
Freedom House yet again changed Egypt’s freedom of the press status to “Not Free” in 2012. After the removal of SCAF from power following demonstrations and the election of now-ousted President Mohamed Morsi to power, the crackdown on media continued. The 2012 constitution, pushed for aggressively by Morsi and the Islamist groups, addressed “freedom of expression” in contradictory terms and left “media professionals exposed to excessive punishments under the law, including prison sentences for ‘malpractice’”. In addition, neither the draft constitution enlisted by SCAF nor the 2012 constitution replaced the Press Law or the Penal Code set in place by the Mubarak regime, and both helped in the oppression of journalists through prosecution.
The Morsi government continued to target its critics with lawsuits; Islam Afifi, the editor of Al-Dostour, was detained in August, charged with “publishing lies” about the president and “endangering national stability and security”. ANHRI reported 24 criminal cases filed for insulting Morsi during the six months after his election, significantly more than during the three previous presidents. Freedom House’s report added that under Morsi, more state media employees were subjected to professional investigation than in the entire 18 months of SCAF rule, targeting those who gave airtime to critics of the president and his government. Physical attacks against journalists did not decrease in 2012; dozens of journalists were attacked by security personnel in Alexandria in May while covering protests, and threats to journalists through civil groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood saw a notable increase.
By December 2012, clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi escalated on the street, leading to the death of one journalist, Al-Husseiny Abu Deif, who was shot dead and the injury of several others: “Mohamed Azouz of Al-Gomhuria, Osama Al-Shazzly of the private daily Al-Badil, Ahmed Abd Al-Salam of the private daily Al-Alam al-Yawm, Sahar Talaat of Radio France Internationale, Ahmed Khair Eldeen of ONTV, and freelance journalist Mohamed Saad.” Two foreign reporters were also attacked.
In December, supporters of Islamist groups besieged the Media Production City, targeting journalists who were critical of the Morsi government.
The year 2013 has proved to be the deadliest for journalists in Egypt, with 12 documented killed as a direct result of their work in the field. The forced dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in dubbed in the media as the “Rabaa sit-in” caused the death of eight reporters. The four other reporters lost their lives while covering clashes throughout the year.
The laws governing freedom of speech did not witness a significant change in 2013. While the Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters without Borders showed a minimal improvement in Egypt’s ranking to 158 from 166 the previous year, the report stresses that the country has maintained a “deplorable” ranking at the bottom of the 179 countries on the list, with “physical attacks on journalists, trials and lack of transparency”.
“I have been detained several times,” stated Ahmed Ragab, reporter and section head at Al-Masry Al-Youm. “The worst time was on 6 April, 2008 under Mubarak’s rule.” Anticipating anti-government protests, the state was on high security alert, turning the country into a “military barricade”. Ragab, along with other reporters, were looking for the protest. “It was not like it is nowadays. Only few people protested and security forces would look for them on nearby street cafes.” On that day, protesters and reporters were arrested and “no one knew where we were being held. They kept moving us from one CSF camp to the other. What usually protects [reporters] is the fact that there are people outside looking for us. It was an extremely tense situation.” He was let go after a day.
Ragab’s experience in the field under Mubarak, Morsi, and currently Interim President Adly Mansour and Defence Minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, has given him a different perspective on the dangers reporters face. “I believe the worst time [for reporters] was Mubarak’s rule because it was worst for freedoms; one could not openly criticise the army, for example, and the existence of the now-strong [local] human rights organisations where people can represent you upon detainment is also a plus.”
For Ragab, freedoms reached their peak under Morsi’s rule “because media outlets were fed up with his affiliates’ attacks on them. The consistent blame of the media over everything – even in his speeches – caused [antagonism], thus criticism was quite openly handed on part of the reporters. In addition, there was clear clash of interests between Morsi and [media moguls].” However, currently, Ragab believes what is happening in the media is much more dangerous because “there are not enough critical voices [of the current government and the armed forces]. The repetition of the same messages [propagating the current regime] is terrifying, for it only sends a unilateral view of the situation.”
He believes that the number of injuries and death among reporters escalated in 2011-2013 because of the “increased number of protests and clashes that turned into street wars.”
The current street clashes are a worry to veteran video journalist Shehab El-Din Abdel Razeq, who spent time covering the Syrian war. “There are rules in a classical war, places where you can bunk with those fighting, places they would protect, but in Egypt there are not any rules on the street,” he said. For Abdel Razeq, the worst part of coverage is the live bullets and birdshot fired at the reporters from both security personnel as well as citizens. Physical attacks represent another potent threat, where angry protesters may target journalists out of sheer anger. “Once during the Rabaa sit in, I was working for an American TV channel,” said Abdel Razeq. “A protester was suspicious of me, swore at ‘the media’ and then a group beat me up until a couple of protesters saved me from their hands, only to interrogate me before letting me go. I could have died that day [because of the beating].”
He pointed out that the same treatment is also experienced at the hands of the police if “they feel you are being stubborn with them.” The affiliation of a reporter to a certain media outlet also affects how they are treated, Abdel Razeq added.
His worst experience was on 20 January 2013 when clashes broke out in Shubra Al-Kheima, Cairo. “Two were shot right next to me,” he recalled. “I went to the morgue to take photos and one of the grieving relatives accused me of killing them. She was upset, crying and I almost got beaten to death. I left the morgue to continue shooting the clashes only to find live bullets exchanged between the police and the residents. I kept shouting to the police ‘I am a reporter’ [in an attempt to get away from the fire line] but they did not care. I ran for my life.”
Menna Alaa, a budding Egyptian video journalist, went through one of her worst experiences on 19 July 2013 when she was attacked by Morsi supporters near the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo. A suspicious mob beat her up, took her camera, accusing her of being sent by the army as others called her names. She was able to get out with the help of a resident of the area. “The most challenging thing to a reporter [in Egypt] is the ability to report safely,” Alaa said. “Female reporters face the same harassment many women in Egypt handle on daily basis, but reporting increases this risk.”
Daily News Egypt’s own reporters have had their share of dangerous confrontations.
On 26 July 2013, DNE’s photographer at the time, Haleem El-Shaarani, was covering clashes by Al-Mansa at night, between Morsi supporters and the police. “I told the officers who I am and that I am taking photos for DNE.” Standing between two APCs to get the best shot, he finished his assignment and was stopped on his way back by a high-ranking officer who questioned him and asked him what he was doing there. “I told him I am doing my job, same as you,” said El-Shaarani , which seemed to set off the officer who beat him with the help of another officer, took his camera and gas mask and ordered his detention. “The scariest part was when they put me in the anti-riot vehicle to be transported to the police station, all the [horror] stories about what happens to prisoners in there came to mind.”
Reporters Joel Gulhane and Charlie Miller encountered their first run in with live bullets on 14 August 2013, in Mohandessin, right in the heart of Cairo, following the forcible dispersal of the Nahda sit-in. Morsi supporters intended to start a new sit-in, and the security officers would not allow it. Their presence was not received well by the protesters, who were angry because they were trying to take photos. “Out of nowhere, shots were fired but it wasn’t clear from where,” recalled Gulhane. “The first casualty I saw was carried around the corner, blood on both sides of his shirt – a chest wound.” Both reporters had to bunker down with bullets whizzing by until they found a safe passage out of danger.
On 25 November 2013, DNE’s photographer, Aaron T. Rose, was taken by men in civilian clothes following his coverage of the Al-Azhar University pro-Morsi protest. “They just grabbed me and put me in an unmarked car,” said Rose, “only to find myself in a police station.” At first, his treatment was “okay on the part of the police, but later they put me in a dirty cell alone and took my mobile phone and equipment from me. I wasn’t given water or access to a telephone either.” The lack of information on why he was being held was what most distressed Rose.
None of the above-mentioned Egyptian journalists are members of the Egyptian Press Syndicate. “It is a useless institution,” commented Ragab. “They rarely help reporters, even legally.” Ragab believes that Egyptian reporters need a new institution that truly represents and can protect them. Abdel Razeq and Alaa both agree with Ragab that becoming a member of the syndicate is quite hard and that it “doesn’t offer much real support to journalists…or at least one that would make a difference.”
The Egyptian Press Syndicate
The Press Syndicate in Egypt is one of the oldest unions in the region, with over 70 years of experience under its belt. To become a member of the syndicate, there are two main criteria: one has to have work experience of several years, and it must be for a newspaper registered with the syndicate. These two rules are quite hard to achieve for young journalists.
Gamal Fahmy, head of the registration committee at the syndicate, said that the regulations for becoming a member of the Press Syndicate are much needed, particularly now “with the state of [chaos] the Egyptian media is experiencing and lack of professionalism.” He added that in the last two years the membership has seen a significant surge. “We only had 5,000 members, but we have accepted nearly 1,800 new reporters, 80% of whom under 30 years old in the last two years.”
Fahmy believes that these regulations offer minimal protection to the professionalism of the craft.
Meanwhile, the Press Syndicate has been repeatedly criticised by reporters for not providing sufficient protection to journalists.
“The situation has now changed,” said Gamal Fahmy. “We used to mainly fight against violations by the state [under Mubarak’s rule], but now we have a street war where journalists are injured on regular basis.”
He stressed that the syndicate’s role is to provide “support for reporters, legally and psychologically, and rallying the public behind the reporters when needed.” He added that the syndicate does not have the tools to offer more than what is already on the table due to limited financial resources. “The syndicate depends on the government for financial support, which barely covers its expenses.” Fahmy added that this lack of independence allows for pressures to be exercised on the syndicate, “which we readily resist.”
But as the shape of journalism is changing in Egypt, so is the way journalists are being treated. “It has become an unwritten rule for insurance companies not to provide their services to journalists,” said Abeer Al-Saady, Safety Trainer at the International Federation of Journalists and head trainer at the Egyptian Press Syndicate.
She added that the situation in Egypt has tremendously changed with field coverage becoming more threatening to reporters. “In a classical war, there are safety measures that are well-known, but in a street war, there are not any rules applied, which makes it even riskier for reporters.” Al-Saady pointed out that reporters are attacked not only by security personnel, but also by citizens while doing their job. “There is even hate speech in [some] media outlets against journalists, which is funny.” The hate speech makes citizens very wary of reporters, who are mostly budding reporters. “Editors are not on the street; rather, it’s young reporters who are assigned coverage that they usually cannot refuse. Thus they need more protection, which makes the syndicate membership more important to [emerging] journalists.”
Al-Saady agreed that the membership procedure at the syndicate is complex. “I am not going to defend any shortcoming on [our part]; we are doing our best and [the membership regulations] are governed by Law 76/1970,” which necessitates a change in law first.
Being a safety trainer, Al-Saady is well-aware of the dangers of field reporting nowadays in Egypt. “Journalists are not provided with any safety equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets, which are banned from sale by the government [to non-security establishments] and are quite expensive, as well. The most any media outlet can do is provide them with gas masks.”
She also criticised the lack of justice for journalists who are attacked and at times killed. “The police isn’t doing its job in protecting reporters, some are even implicated in such attacks.”
Ending impunity and finding practical ways on part of the authorities are the two main methods to help provide the journalists with a safer environment, according to Al-Saady.
The current dilemma of journalists
Journalists working in Egypt are faced with a dilemma; they have the eagerness to do their job and provide the best coverage possible, but with the current conditions, they risk their life without being supplied with the correct gear or the protection of the state.
Without retribution for crimes committed against journalists and no readily effective body to protect them, reporters fully realise the perils they face.
Most choose to risk their lives, rather than missing a story.
The blood trail
Since 1992, civil societies have documented the death of 16 journalists in Egypt –15 of which after the 25 January Revolution.
Farag Fouda, a columnist for several publications and a vocal critic of the extremist Islamist movement, was shot dead on 8 June, 1992.
Fouda was deemed an infidel for criticising ultra-conservative ideas in the height of power of the Islamist militant groups in Egypt.
His assassination shocked almost everyone and raised questions on the consequences that journalists face in return of freely voicing their views in a country like Egypt.
Following the 25 January Revolution, 15 journalists have been killed.
Two journalists were killed, according to CPJ; Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud was shot in his office as anti-Mubarak demonstrations broke out on the streets. Mahmoud was videotaping the protests from his office balcony when, according to his wife, security forces spotted him and he was shot dead by a sniper.
Wael Mikail was shot dead during the Maspero clashes between protesters and military personnel in October 2011. Mikail was filming the protest organised by several Coptic movements. Speculation on whether he was shot by the military still remains.
Al-Husseiny Abu Deif, a reporter for Al-Fagr newspaper, was shot dead while covering clashes that broke out between supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi and his opponents by the presidential palace on 12 December, 2012. Abu Deif’s family has been quite vocal in accusing Muslim Brotherhood supporters of targeting him because of his investigative work targeting the group and its leaders.
Considered one of the bloodiest years for journalism in Egypt, 2013 saw the death of 12 journalists.
Salah El-Din Hassan was killed while covering clashes that broke out in Port Said in June 2013, prior to Morsi’s ouster. According to his paper, Al-Shaab, Hassan was covering the clashes when an explosive device hit him, decapitating him.
Ahmed Samir, a reporter at the Freedom and Justice paper, was shot dead during the Republican Guards clashes on 8 July. Violence erupted after Morsi supporters headed to the Republican Guard Headquarters in Nasr City, Cairo, with allegations from protesters that the military personnel opened fire on them. The military, in turn, accused protesters of trying to break into the headquarters.
The forcible dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa sit-in by security forces on 14 August, 2013, led to the death of eight reporters: Mosab El-Shami, Michael Douglas, Habiba Ahmed, Adam Mohamed, Islam Abbas, Ahmed Mohamed, Ahmed Abdelgawad and Ahmed Helal. Violence ensued and gunfire was exchanged between some protesters and the police, leading to one of the worst days for journalism in Egypt.
State-owned Nile News reporter Mohamed Samir lost his life during clashes in Ramsis Square, Cairo, on 16 August between Morsi supporters, opponents and the police.
Tamer Abdel Raouf, bureau chief of state-owned Al-Ahram in Al-Beheira, was shot dead in a security checkpoint on 19 August. His wife accused military personnel of wrongfully shooting at her husband’s car.
Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator at CPJ, Sherif Mansour, spoke to DNE about the dangers facing journalists working in Egypt, as well as ways to improve their status.
1- What are the main dangers facing reporters in Egypt?
Street violence and political [divisions] are undermining the safety of journalists, and at the same time wasting any chance for solidarity with them when they get in trouble because of their work. This year, Egypt was for the first time ranked third in our census for deadliest countries in the world and among top ten jailers of journalists worldwide.
2- Has there been any change in the dangers facing reporters since Morsi’s ouster?
The impunity factor in attacks against journalists has been unprecedented since Morsi was ousted. Five journalists were killed in a few months under the current military-led government while doing their work. This is compared to two who were killed under Morsi’s one year tenure and two under Mubarak’s 30-year tenure.
3- What is the worst case CPJ has documented in Egypt?
Outside of killings of journalists, the arrest of dual Canadian-Egyptian journalists, and of Mohamed Fahmy, who worked with Al Jazeera, is the most concerning. Fahmy was arrested for accusation of being part of a “terrorist cell” along with three of his colleagues more than two weeks ago. He was kept in a windowless room, filled with cockroaches, without a bed in Cairo’s notorious A’qrab (Scorpion) Prison. His pre-existing shoulder injury has been exacerbated by his arrest and incarceration. Fahmy has so far been refused medical assistance. Prison authorities have also refused to deliver to Fahmy a sleeping bag and pillow delivered by his family. A family member who recently visited the prison said that Fahmy was specifically put with jihadists inmates. They said he looked disoriented and struggled to recognise them at first. Fahmy’s family fears he is being subject to physical and psychological abuse.
4- What do you think of the Ministry of Interior’s treatment of reporters?
The Ministry of Interior has been given free hand to go after anyone who is deemed by the government as sympathetic to the Brotherhood, or as working for outlets from countries which criticised Morsi’s ouster. Now, with the government declaration of Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, they also are using this charge, terrorism, to target journalists. Since the 3 July removal of President Mohamed Morsi, at least 45 journalists has been assaulted, 11 news outlets raided, and a staggering 44 journalists were detailed. All those journalists were held without official charges, in pre-trial procedures that sometimes go for months, and in the worst conditions. Today, at least seven journalists remain behind bars. As one journalist who is currently in custody told his family, “In Egypt right now, you are guilty until proven otherwise.”
5- What are the steps that should be taken to protect reporters in Egypt? And what do you think of the Press Syndicate’s role in this issue?
Egypt is going through a crucial time, as millions of Egyptians cast their vote on the constitutional amendments referendum. The vote [was] seen more than anything as a vote of confidence in the current regime and its roadmap to democracy after they ousted President Morsi in July. This is an opportunity for all local, regional and international stakeholders to send this unified message to the Egyptian government: the unprecedented waves of attacks against journalists need to stop immediately. The witch-hunt against journalists cannot go unpunished. Those who perpetrated the killings of journalists need to be held accountable and brought to justice. Those who are in custody because of their work should be released without delay and without conditions.
We heard this message coming loud and clear from within Egypt today [13 January]. The Freedoms Committee in the Egyptian journalists syndicate issued a statement today saying that arresting Aljazeera English journalists is “distorting Egypt’s image abroad” and is considered to be “a clear evidence of the oppression policy against any opposing views.” Also today more than dozens of correspondents and editors representing over 30 international media organisations are calling for the immediate release of journalists detained in Egypt. The statement highlights concerns by the international press over media freedom in Egypt and the ability of journalists to do their work without fear of arrest.
It is time that the Egyptian governments respond to those increasing demands and for the international community, including international media, policy makers, and international organisations to pressure the Egyptian government to live up to their responsibilities and obligations to the world to protect the rights and freedoms of their its citizens.