When police forces stormed the Press Syndicate on 1 May, it was not the first assault by state authorities on press freedom, but it was the first attack of its kind, unprecedented in the history of the Egyptian press and in the record of the country’s dictators.
It would then become difficult—and perhaps impossible—to think that there could be a similar harassment of journalists again. Yet, before the month came to an end, the state managed to direct another blow to the press by detaining and investigating the syndicate’s leader and secretaries on 29 May.
As the details of their overnight detention unfold, during which they were turned from eye-witnesses to suspects, there seems to be persistence—at least by some state institutions—to escalate against the syndicate. For one thing, a trial session was urgently scheduled.
Syndicate’s leading members released on bail, to face trial
Released by the prosecution authority on Monday following a groundbreaking 24-hour detention and at least 14 hours of investigations, Press Syndicate leader Yehia Qalash, secretary general Gamal Abdel Reheem, and undersecretary Khaled El-Balshy will stand trial next Saturday.
They will be facing charges according to articles 144 and 145 of the Penal Code, according to their lawyers, risking jail terms of between one to three years.
Despite this, the Press Syndicate has decided to continue pursuing its rights. “My conscience is clear and I will not submit,” Qalash told reporters who gathered at Zeinhom Court on Monday, waiting for his release.
“The right is ours. We have been assaulted and we are the ones who demand the rule of law, but what happened, was entirely a violation of the law. We will not surrender to manipulations of the truth. The syndicate was stormed in an unparalleled historical attack and we shall never let this happen again,” Qalash stated.
The syndicate’s leader and secretaries declared their determination on Sunday night by refusing to pay bail ordered by the prosecution for their release. The stance came as a surprise even to their warders at Qasr El-Nile police station where they spent the night inside an office and received fine treatment, according to their testimonies.
Marking a stance against legal and political abuse in their opinion, it was with outrage that journalists in solidarity with them took the news that the trio was bailed out. The syndicate’s board said in a statement that followed an emergency meeting on Monday, that it strongly supported their colleagues’ decision, denouncing “attempts to break the journalist community’s will in the matter”.
“We had different speculations on why this could have happened, because we did not want anything that would suggest our members retracted their decision,” said Mahmoud Kamel, a member of the syndicate’s board, in comments to Daily News Egypt.
Kamel explained that Qalash, Abdel Reheem, and El-Balshy have the final say. Some journalists thought it was an undercover attempt from the state to defeat them or that perhaps other parties had interests in bringing the crisis to an end.
“On the other hand, journalists could also not bear the idea of the trio spending another day in detention and could have volunteered to bail them out, without even referring to them, because their final stance was to reject such an initiative,” Kamel said.
Lawyer Tarek Nagida, also a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP), is the one who paid the EGP 10,000 bail amount for each of the three members. Coming under fire from several journalists, Nagida told Daily News Egypt Tuesday that “it was decided among several journalists”.
“I acted out of a 35-year long friendship with the syndicate’s leader. I felt it was my legal, personal, and professional duty. I assert that this was unrelated to neither the state nor its security apparatus. I am a man known for his refusal in such interference and I do not take orders. Such insinuations are insulting,” he said.
Legal harassment of syndicate leaders
The refusal to be released on bail was among other steps intended to object to and question the legality of prosecution procedures in the case. At first, the trio was summoned by the prosecution to answer questions related to the storming incident.
Instead, they were interrogated over accusations of harbouring wanted journalists Mahmoud El-Saqa and Amr Badr as well as publishing and spreading false information and rumours about the storming, which was officially denied by the Interior Ministry and the prosecutor general shortly after it happened, on grounds that arrest warrants were issued for the journalists.
“Everybody knows the case is fabricated,” said Nagida. “There was a malicious attempt to drag the trio, the syndicate and every single journalist into this. There were obvious legal flaws as the two journalists willingly took shelter at the syndicate—which is a public space—and they had also announced they intended to strike there.”
Nagida explained that this shows that syndicate board members were neither implicated nor were they “hiding wanted suspects”. For instance, El-Balshy was out of the country and returned only upon hearing the news of the police break-in.
Moreover, the prosecution’s pre-established position suggested a bias against the trio, and that is why Qalash demanded a separate judge to be assigned for the investigations.
Furthermore, Kamel and syndicate board member Hanan Fikry asserted that the trio was confronted with opinions they had publicly shared, such as comments they made to TV and press following the break-in. Referring to the incident as storming was in itself the accusation they faced, even though this was a united position undertaken by the press and media at first.
Finally, Qalash stated that the arrest violated the syndicate’s law which requires his presence or that of his representative, along with a prosecution official, in the case that the police wants to enter the syndicate.
Throughout the history of the syndicate, there have been cases where journalists were wanted by the judiciary but were protected and defended by the syndicate, after which negotiations with authorities achieved results in favour of the journalists.
A politicised case ‘sponsoring’ the assault on press freedom
“When we presented ourselves to the prosecution, we saw several indications of bad will on their behalf whether in the excessive presence of security forces, the mistreatment of our lawyers, and the investigations which took place for 14 hours, ending with the decision to transfer us to the police station and grant us a release on bail,” wrote El-Balshy in a Tuesday testimony on Facebook.
Nagida further commented by claiming that a political bias was more apparent than law reinforcement and that a trial had been set despite no investigations. At the same time, official reports filed by the syndicate demanding investigations into the break-in have been ignored.
A statement by the syndicate’s board said that “in the history of professional syndicates, this was the first time a syndicate leader and representatives were detained in a syndicate case” upon weak legal grounds and information by the Ministry of Interior—a party in the conflict.
“Do we live in nonsense?” said Kamel. “The syndicate will pursue all legitimate ways to get back its right. Just as Qalash put it, we are defending the power of law and not the law of power.”
Reactions highlight political polarisation
The crisis has been ongoing for a month, without serious intervention from President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi or other state institutions, left entirely to the security apparatus. “We haven’t seen responses from the state,” said Kamel.
Only a few politicians highlighted the seriousness of the continuing state escalation against the Press Syndicate. “It needed the intervention of wise men,” said MP Mohamed Anwar Sadat, adding that parliament did not carefully handle the situation, failing to achieve a balance between the rule of law and freedom of opinion and expression.
The Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) issued a condemning statement on Monday saying: “what the country witnesses today is a flagrant assault on the freedoms of syndicates, the press, and freedom of opinion and expression to the extent that even its denunciation has become meaningless.”
The party expressed its opposition to the continuous tight grip of security when dealing with freedoms, warning of a dangerous situation of systematic violations of the Constitution “which has a negative impact on different social factions”.
The party further supported the syndicate members’ demands in their refusal to pay the bail for the assignment of an independent judge on the investigations, as well as parliament’s need to amend the penal code in a manner that would annul imprisonment in cases related to freedom of expression.
The Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP) also announced a supporting stance for syndicate leaders.
Weak press coverage
It has become clear by now that the press is divided between those who vowed loyalty to the regime and those who continue to defend freedoms.
Unlike the wide-scale condemnation that emblazoned headlines following the break-in, on Tuesday most local newspapers ran a story on the front page focusing more on the news of the Press Syndicate leader’s detention, which was preceded by long hours of investigations, rather than the demands of the detained members’ for an independent judge to investigate and their objection to the charges resulting in them refusing to pay the bail for their release.
Only some newspapers, like Al-Shorouk and Al-Watan, ran full-page stories inside, but most of Tuesday’s coverage lacked analysis or commentary, while the issue almost went unmentioned in state-run papers Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar.
Despite Al-Sisi asserting in interviews with foreign correspondents on the “free press situation in Egypt”, journalists see a dangerous escalation against them because of their profession, in addition to a crackdown on any means of peaceful expression.
It seems the press crisis will go on for a while. “We will continue, we don’t intentionally create crisis, but the struggle has been imposed on us. We are defending the violated laws and the Constitution, and Egypt, which has been distorted by naive crisis handlers,” concluded Kamel.