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Egypt’s media crackdown: targeting of journalists union and continued detention of reporters

By Daniel Finnan

The head of an Egyptian journalists union and two board members have in recent weeks been given suspended two year jail sentences and fined for harbouring fugitives. The charges against Yehia Kalash, president of the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate, Gamal Abdel Rahim and Khaled Elbalshy stem from a police raid on the union’s building in May. Two journalists, wanted by police over protests against the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, had taken refuge at the building. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said the charges against members of the Journalists’ Syndicate was not an issue of freedom of speech. However, press freedom advocates such as the Committee to Protect Journalists have said the journalists union is being punished for working to protect journalists from harassment, threats and arrests. Meanwhile, a number of journalists continue to be held behind bars in Egypt often without charge. One such case is photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid ‘Shawkan’ who has spent more than 1,000 days in jail following his arrest during the Rabaa protests in 2013. This week’s African Media speaks to an expert on Egyptian media to discuss the significance of the charges against members of the journalists union and a lawyer who is representing Shawkan in Geneva, petitioning to have his case recognised by the UN.

Fatima el-Issawi, Middle East Centre, London School of Economics, on targeting of Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate

Q&A: Fatima el-Issawi

"This is unprecedented in the history of Egyptian media, but it’s part of a wider crackdown on civil liberties, civil society groups, lawyers and human rights groups. Definitely the crackdown on journalists is stronger than on other groups, it’s unprecedented. What we used to see under [former President Hosni] Mubarak was form of co-optation, intimidation, but we had a much higher margin of manoeuvre for expressing dissent in media. Since the military coup most of the media are singing the song of the military regime with only very few media and very few journalists who are trying to send a critical message about what's going on now in Egypt. They have to face retaliation - some of them are forbidden from traveling, some of them have seen assets in banks frozen - so it’s really a very fierce attack on journalists."

Toby Cadman, international human rights lawyer, on case of detained photojournalist Shawkan

Q&A: Toby Cadman

"He has been brought before a judge, on the last occasion he was actually allowed to address the judge for the first time. My role has been working in highlight his situation with the United Nations. The UN in Geneva has a number of special rapporteurs and working groups that deal with particular instances of human rights violations. We filed a communication earlier this year with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Egypt declined to respond and the UN working group recently, in the last couple of weeks, issued a ruling upholding our complaint saying that he should be released, he should be offered compensation. The matter has also been referred to the Special Rapporteur on torture because of his deteriorating health situation and the refusal to provide him with adequate medical care or to release him from custody constitutes inhuman, degrading treatment and may constitute torture."

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