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“I am living proof that when the good people of the world come together to lift an injustice they can literally move the most powerful country in the world to act and to save an innocent life” – Mohamed Soltan
“Journalists at risk in Egypt” was the first of the Doughty Street International Media Defence Seminars hosted in partnership with Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF) focusing on legal protection strategies in the face of increasing risks to press freedom in different country contexts.
Attended by a broad range of journalists, in-house legal counsel and press freedom organisations, as well as those with particular interest in Egypt and the region, the seminar provided the opportunity to hear from Egyptian and international journalists directly affected by repressive measures in Egypt, as well as Doughty Street International counsel Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Mark Wassouf, who have acted in a number of these important and high profile cases.
The purpose of the seminar series is to share collective experience on an important and often overlooked topic: the protection of journalists who are harassed, arrested, detained or worse simply for doing their job and exercising their right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Mark Stephens CBE opened by providing a useful introduction to the new laws in Egypt being used to oppress journalists. Learning from Russia, Egypt has extended the application of laws on foreign funding to apply to journalists and bloggers who receive, for example, foreign scholarships, allowing new repressive measures against freedom of expression, such as asset freezing and travel bans.
Professor Roy Greenslade spoke powerfully about the importance of journalists supporting colleagues at risk abroad. He lamented how journalists in the West are complacent because of the freedom of speech enjoyed here.
"With our freedom we have the ability act on behalf of those who are not free. But too often we ignore repression of free speech elsewhere, too often we ignore the brave journalists who risk their lives," Greenslade said.
While arrests of international journalists bring headlines, Greenslade emphasised the plight of local journalists in repressive countries and concluded with a powerful call to action: "We are complicit in repression elsewhere if we don't act. We who fail to speak up, we encourage undemocratic regimes to imprison and kill journalists."
Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Mark Wassouf gave an introductory background on the situation in Egypt, the international law applicable to freedom of expression and opinion, and discussed their case work involving Egyptian human rights defenders and journalists. Caolifhionn spoke of her work for Esraa Abdel Fattah, who has been subjected to a travel ban, including the complaint the UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye, and the #LetEsraaFly campaign. More generally, Caoifhionn explained how the Egyptian government is conflating journalists with those they are reporting on, whether that be reporting on protests or on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Peter Greste joined live by Skype from Australia to talk about his arrest, detention and conviction in Egypt for his reporting with Al Jazeera. In a Q&A with Mark Stephens, Peter explained that he believes his arrest was intended to send a clear and unequivocal message to the media more broadly: do not speak with or cover the Brotherhood. By arresting journalists who reported on the Brotherhood, the government intended a chilling impact with the effect of a de facto broadcasting ban on information related to the Brotherhood.
Picking up on Roy Greenslade’s comments, Peter spoke at length about the importance of the solidarity campaign run by fellow journalists around the world, which he described as the largest of its kind in modern history. For Peter and his Al Jazeera colleagues, this campaign was essential in securing their release, but also in helping them survive in prison. He also emphasised that the arrest of journalists anywhere should properly be considered a threat to journalists everywhere, a notion which also gave him comfort in prison. “It was easier to survive in prison knowing that by fighting our case, we were actually fighting for journalists everywhere,” he said.
Mark Wassouf spoke about his experience defending Peter’s colleague Mohamed Fahmy and outlined the international human rights mechanisms that can be used in cases of unlawful and arbitrary detention of journalists like his. He also explained the creative strategies media organisation could consider, such as Al Jazeera’s complaint against Egypt under the Qatar-Egypt investment treaty.
We were also fortunate enough to have recorded video messages from two Egyptian journalists who have been affected by similarly repressive measures: Esraa Abdel Fattah, who is subjected to a travel ban for her journalism, and Mohamed Soltan, who was shot and arrested by police for live-tweeting protests and sentenced to life in prison – but has since been released.
Esraa spoke about her personal situation and how her travel ban has impacted upon her reputation and prevented her from pursuing educational opportunities. She also spoke to the situation for journalism in Egypt, saying “there is no room for any opinion which contradicts or opposes – the only space available is for those whose opinions support the present regime. Those with different views, or opposing views have their reports denied, or their programmes stopped or they are prevented from publishing articles.” For this reason, she is no longer able to write for any Egyptian publication.
Soltan emphasised the courage of Egyptian journalists and social media activists who are putting their lives at risk to ensure the world is informed about what is happening in Egypt and highlighted the thousands of others who remain in prison today, including Mahmoud Abou Zeid (“Shawkan”) and Abdullah Al-Fahkarany.
“I was on the brink of death more than a dozen times, but thankfully my life was spared because thousands of people, good people around the world rallied around the injustice I was facing. I’m fortunate to have escaped that dark and horrifying fate that many courageous young Egyptians are still facing today...”
“I am living proof that when the good people of the world come together to lift an injustice they can literally move the most powerful country in the world to act and to save an innocent life. And its my hope that we can work together to build on those success stories – that of Peter and myself – and that we can all inspire others around us to do the same for those thousands that still remain.”
In light of these experiences, Caoilfhionn expressed concern that many media organisations fail to have in place the necessary legal and political risk strategies before sending journalists in to report in Egypt. When things go wrong for journalists stationed abroad – when, as has happened in Egypt so often recently, the government arbitrarily arrest an international correspondent – those sitting back in the headquarters in London or New York often find themselves at a loss as to what they can do. But, as Caoilfhionn explained, there are things we can do – both before and after journalists venture into risky territory – to help put pressure on governments to abide by their international obligations. She also encouraged the audience to participate in ongoing campaigns for Esraa (#LetEsraaFly) and imprisoned photojournalist Shakwan (#FreeShakwan) whose photographs were displayed at the event.
After an engaging group discussion, Rebecca Vincent, director of the new London bureau of RSF, explained the support available from RSF for journalists at risk around the world and the importance of links with Doughty Street International.
Doughty Street has long been committed to supporting press freedom at home and abroad. As Mark Stephens emphasised in his remarks, Doughty Street leads the way at the Bar when it comes to protecting freedom of expression. As a reflection of that commitment and work, two new initiatives were launched at the seminar: the DSI Media Defence Panel and the DSI Media Defence Blog, which will provide updates about risks to journalists internationally. Our new International Media Defence Panel consists of15 international law media experts experienced in taking action to support journalists and media organisations at risk worldwide, including through bringing complaints to international courts and United Nations mechanisms.
Information on upcoming events on Turkey and Russia is available here.
Below are the videos and pictures of the event.