The holiday period, during which the rest of the world’s attention is frequently distracted, is often a dangerous time for those opposed to the government in Egypt.
Over the past three years, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian authorities have used a variety of methods to stifle dissent by their critics, frequently taking advantage of the relative lack of media coverage over the Christmas and New Year holidays to intensify their efforts. The stage was set within hours of the July 2013 coup when the army deposed former president Mohamed Morsi. Article 19 has documented how, that day, security forces shut down five private satellite TV channels linked to the Muslim Brotherhood; closed four other channels perceived as supporting the Muslim Brotherhood; raided two foreign satellite channels, Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera Al-Mubasher, confiscating cameras and equipment and arresting staff; and other channels were blocked by a government-owned satellite operator.
Since 2013, Egypt has consistently been one of the world’s worst offenders for the jailing of journalists. Journalists and media outlets which have strayed from officially sanctioned narratives and criticised the regime have found themselves facing a range of draconian measures to silence them - arrest, detention without trial, criminal charges, intrusive surveillance, asset freezing, travel bans and physical assaults. Freedom House has described how this combination of measures has resulted in producing a media environment in which most public and private outlets are firmly supportive of the regime, and dissent is stifled. Reporters without Borders (RSF) has described the current authorities as “orchestrating a ‘Sisification’ of the media” and has expressed grave concern over an anti-terrorism law adopted in August 2015, under which journalists are obliged on national security grounds to report only the official version of what are deemed to be terrorist attacks.
This month five UN experts, including the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye, have strongly condemned Egypt for escalating its hostile actions against civil society. They have highlighted the authorities’ clampdown on women human rights defenders in particular, and the use of the notorious Case 173/2011 investigation into ‘foreign funding’ to silence critics. Case 173/2011 is also the basis for many restrictive measures which have been placed upon journalists and bloggers, and, in the current environment, there is a substantial overlap between journalists and human rights defenders – many journalists, outraged at the systemic undermining of free speech, are taking what steps they can to campaign for change.
Recent years have also seen a worrying pattern of particularly draconian steps being taken by the authorities over the holiday period. For example:
- On 29 December 2013 four Al Jazeera staff members were arrested, and three were charged with a number of offences, including aiding the Muslim Brotherhood (which had been declared a terrorist organisation a number of days earlier, on Christmas Day). The three were Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian who headed the network’s Cairo bureau; Australian correspondent and former BBC reporter Peter Greste; and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed. They were convicted of, amongst other things, spreading false news and weakening Egypt’s reputation abroad in June 2014, following a trial which the US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned as having “lacked many fundamental norms of due process” (Peter Greste was subsequently returned to Australia during the course of his retrial; Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were pardoned by President El-Sisi following action taken by their lawyers and widespread outrage at their convictions).
- On Christmas Eve 2014, the names of many individuals suspected of having received ‘foreign funding’, including Egyptian journalist and activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, were added to a travel ban list, preventing them from leaving Egypt.
- On 29 December 2015, the Egyptian authorities raided a prominent art gallery and publishing house associated with opposition groups. The authorities confiscated laptops and books in an apparent effort to intimidate the opposition ahead of the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution of 25 January.
- This year, the long-delayed trial of Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) is due to take place on 27 December. He has been detained without trial since August 2013, when he was arrested for taking photographs at a protest. Many organisations, including the Egyptian Press Syndicate and Amnesty International, have repeatedly called for his immediate release.
This holiday season, the world should not avert its gaze from these flagrant abuses of freedom of expression in Egypt. What remnants of free expression remain are under greater threat than ever before.
The authors have expertise in freedom of expression in Egypt, and have acted for a number of journalists, protestors and human rights defenders. Together, Caoilfhionn Gallagher, Katie O’Byrne and Mark Wassouf act for the renowned journalist and activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, who has recently lost her job as a journalist due to “security pressure” on her employer and who has been subject to a travel ban since Christmas Eve 2014; and for Irishman Ibrahim Halawa, arrested in August 2013 when a child of 17 and detained without trial since, facing the death penalty. Mark Wassouf acted, with Amal Clooney, for journalist Mohamed Fahmy.
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Picture: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany