Since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in mid-2013, journalists have struggled to do their jobs as they have faced threats while reporting in the field, particularly while covering protests. The most violent incident was the shooting of young journalist Mayada Ashraf on 28 March 2014.
Journalists faced a myriad of risks: arrest, detention, intimidation by security forces and physical assault from both the police and civilian population. After the election of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, press freedom was jeopardised by further violations, committed mostly by the executive authority and state security institutions. The current regime has deployed a multifaceted and broad policy of oppression on the press and the media to ensure that dissident voices are made silent.
While the state has not issued a formal policy regarding its efforts to curtail journalist, several repressive measures have become common practice. Security forces raid the houses of journalists at dawn without any forewarning. Journalists are detained in unknown locations, have their telephone and internet activity subject to surveillance, and suffer maltreatment in detention facilities. Several journalists have been called in for interrogation, only to find themselves accused of destabilising public order, harming state institutions, or publishing false news. A recent example would be the investigations conducted by national Security with Mada Masr’s Hossam Bahgat.
In the most recent iteration of the state’s attempt to control media discourse, the government has instituted pre-emptive security screenings for Egyptian journalists and researchers arriving to or leaving from Egypt’s airports. Journalist Ismail Al-Iskandarani was arrested in Hurghada Airport and has been detained since November 2015, facing similar charges.
And when journalists are not the target of state oppression, print media itself seems to be censored. There are accounts of newspapers being censored minutes before going to print without permission.
Former chairman of the Press Syndicate, Diaa Rashwan, took a significant stance in 2014 to defend the rights of journalists. Under Rashwan, the syndicate broadened its scope of action beyond protesting limitations of freedom of expression.
With the election of Yehia Qalash as new syndicate chairman, hopes for both legislative reform and new legislation were renewed, especially among the younger generation of journalists, who have little legal protection and less rights at their news institutions.
Amid a deteriorating human rights’ situation and the increase of censorship and security violence, Qalash remains discreet in the face of the increasing state crackdown on the press.
Prominent syndicate member Khaled El-Balshy has led an exhausting battle with the state and within the syndicate. El-Balshy successfully led the Freedoms Committee within the syndicate, issuing and delivering promises to defend all journalists, including non-members of the syndicate.
El-Balshy eventually issued the first annual report by the committee, detailing every violation committed against journalists; yet the assaults on the press continue. When El-Balshy was informed that four colleagues who are currently detained at Al-Aqrab High Security prison were nearly dying from medical negligence, he decided to personally strike until they were treated.
After hours of sitting in at the syndicate Monday, the Ministry of Interior responded by confirming that Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar order for the provision of intensive medical care and follow-up for detained journalists in need of medical care, according to a statement from the sit-in coordinators.
Daily News Egypt spoke with El-Balshy during the sit-in prior to the issuance of the Ministry of Interior’s statement on Monday.
Can you explain the reasons behind your protest and your demands?
First of all, our strike has very basic demands: the right to life and the right to medical treatment for journalists in detention. We demand they do not die and not be left to slow deaths in prison.
Second of all, we demand the release of detained journalists. There are currently 20 journalists imprisoned in cases related to their profession. Another eight journalists have been referred to criminal courts and eight received prison verdicts in absentia.
Today, four of our colleagues are dying as a result of negligence to their serious health problems and due to the prison’s denial of medical treatment. Some started hunger strikes in desperate attempts to demand their rights.
We receive complaints regarding inhumane living conditions in jail and poor medical facilities in prison hospitals. We have not been able to verify such recurring claims because the Ministry of Interior would not allow us to visit our colleagues to check up on their situations.
A few examples of prison treatment include lack of ventilation inside prison cells that results in the spread of mould, fungus, and skin diseases; solitary confinement; lack of food and medicine; and visiting hours that are often prohibited for months at a time.
We are striking for the right to life so that our colleagues do not die.
How does the syndicate communicate with different state institutions regarding detained journalists?
The syndicate spared no efforts trying to communicate with Egyptian authorities. We filed over 65 official complaints to the prosecutor-general in recent months. We officially addressed the Interior Ministry and the presidency, many times.
We request our detained colleagues receive medical treatment and those held at Al-Aqrab High Security prison be transferred to other prisons. When we demand the release of some colleagues, we provide guarantees by the syndicate that the defendant will not disappear once released if his or her trial is pending.
At the same time, we ask authorities not to turn pre-trial detention into a punishment in itself. We addressed the presidency regarding the possible pardon of imprisoned journalists who spent a portion of their term in prison and those whose health conditions have deteriorated.
On the other hand, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been in contact with us and asked us to respond to foreign reports issued on the situation of human freedoms in Egypt. I told them that, honestly, reality is by far worse than those reports.
Did the state respond?
There have been a few positive responses, very limited, though, and, most importantly, temporary. I remember that, one time, in the face of our demands for medical examination to be performed on our colleague Youssef Shaaban, that, indeed he was allowed to go to the hospital. It turned out to be just a trip out of jail to drive around and he never actually got that check-up.
Al-Aqrab prison was preventing visits. After our repeated pressure on the ministry for families to be able to visit their relatives, prison authorities became more flexible but for a very short time, after which everything went back to the way it was.
So sometimes there are some reactions to our demands but the main issue itself remains unsolved.
What do you think of Al-Sisi’s current regime, particularly after his speech a few days ago at the Galaa Theatre?
Clearly the regime is that of a one-man rule. This man considers that his opinion, and only his, is correct and matters. And that is exactly what he announced to the people in the speech when he said “listen to me, and to me only”.
There are constant attempts to control and direct the media into one voice. This is the characteristic of a dictatorship, which sees only one picture, where everybody is smiling. The truth is we are in front of one of the worst times in the history of Egyptian press freedom. I do not think we have had this large of a number of detained journalists before.
There have been talks about security control of press and media. How would that be happening?
To begin with, a “security man” is a permanent resident at the printing house. Whatever content he dislikes, he dismisses. This is one of the violations of press freedom that we had supposedly overcome in past years.
As for the media, I cannot make such claims. What I see on TV is that presenters themselves reveal violations of the sort. TV host Tawfik Okasha said during his show that he had personally been a tool of the intelligence services! Other journalists also said that but I do not have proof.
But I do follow hints and the general situation definitely highlights the control of the media. There are regularly organised media campaigns against certain personalities at certain times, coming from different institutions with the same speech. There have been leaked recordings published for journalists, operated in the first place through security bodies.
What if the state continues its oppressive practices?
The problem is that people are always looking for immediate and direct results of their struggle, those quick gains, and there are always going to be some. But if we want to achieve something bigger and sustainable, it will depend very much on our ability to keep pressuring and demanding our rights.
You just have to keep fighting for your rights. If you are unaware of your issues, that could be another problem but, once you know your rights, you have to demand them.
We are not demanding the right to medication for imprisoned journalists only; we’re demanding that journalists do not get violated in the first place just due to the practice of their job. By the rule of law, journalists are victims of injustice.
What about those quick gains, so far?
The syndicate launched a campaign called “We will treat them” aimed to provide assistance to Al-Aqrab prison detainees and other journalists in detention. At the time, Al-Aqrab prison opened up family visits and transferred some journalists to hospitals.
On another note, the syndicate recently took a stance against the coverage of parliamentary affairs following an MP’s assault on a journalist. The parliament then officially apologised to journalists.
I think there is progress in laws. What I mean is that we are there, we are heard, and as long as we continue moving, we will achieve results.
Is the unified media and press law one of those goals?
Of course. I believe it is an important step; passing it will have positive implications for the future of press freedom. However, it is not about having the law, as much as it is about enforcing it.
There are currently protests by other professional syndicates, sometimes with common issues such as security violations. What is the significance of those movements?
I agree that there are sparks of some mobilisation, stronger in some areas than others, but generally I think the security rhetoric and the unfulfilled promise of stability have come to an end and so has fear. We are, indeed, witnessing positive movements.