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Middle East

'No time to say good-bye'

A reporter for a Spanish newspaper has fled Egypt before his "imminent arrest." In an interview with DW's Naomi Conrad, he tells his story, stressing that this may be the start of a crackdown on foreign journalists.

DW: You left Egypt in mid-June while working for the Spanish daily, El Pais. Can you tell me why you suddenly left?

Ricard Gonzalez: I can't disclose to you how I left exactly, but I'll tell you as much as I can: The Spanish authorities told me that I was at risk of imminent arrest and that the charges could be serious. So they advised me not to stay in Egypt because it was very dangerous and I left in a rush. They didn't elaborate on what the possible charges were or who the source was because they didn't want to compromise him or her. So I don't know any more than this. All the information was very vague, but I didn't want to risk staying.

Why do you think you were targeted?

I don't think I've done anything very different than other foreign correspondents in Egypt. The only thing that I did, and maybe it's not that normal, is that I wrote a book about the Muslim Brotherhood, which was published in March. The book is critical of the current regime, but it's also critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, it's not sympathetic at all. But I really don't know. My newspaper, El Pais, has been one of the most critical newspapers in Europe when it comes to the Egyptian regime, maybe that's another reason. I just don't know. Or maybe it's related to President el-Sissi's visit to Spain in April, maybe the authorities scrutinized what we wrote after that. Who knows?

Do you think this represents a general shift in working conditions for foreign journalists in Egypt? Because, until now, it seemed that unless you were working for, say Al-Jazeera, you were relatively safe, sure, you might be deported, but there was no threat of imminent arrest.

Logo El País

Yes, that is exactly why I was very surprised because the Egyptian authorities and actually President Sissi himself had said that it was a mistake to indict foreign journalists and that next time they should be deported. I thought it was very strange. I don't know if there is a change in the policies. Some people have the theory that this may be a test: So let's see if we can get rid of a foreign journalist and if he doesn't complain, if that works, we can do it again. So that is why I am going public. And the situation has got a lot worse in recent months: It is a lot harder to work because now you need a permit for everything you do and it takes so long to get one. And the general mood is more hostile towards us because state media has been demonizing foreign journalists as spies. And it's almost impossible for journalists to get a short-term permit if they are only coming for one or two weeks.

What are you going to do now?

Well, I think I can't take the risk of going back to Egypt. Right now, I am working in Madrid; most likely, I will move to Tunis in September.

Would you recommend that other foreign journalists also leave the country?

No, it's very important that they stay and continue to do the work that they are doing. The conditions for the Egyptian press is so dire. They are not able to cover so many stories. So we, the foreign journalists, are able to cover some of the stories that local media outlets aren't - human rights violations, conditions in prisons for example, torture, secret prisons, you know, talking to the opposition, those kinds of stories. The work of foreign journalists is really important, so I hope they stay and don't leave.

Are you going to miss Egypt?

Yes, of course. I have a lot of friends there and some of them are not from rich families so they can't just get a ticket and go to Europe. So, if I don't go back, I can't see them. You know, I didn't even have time to say good-bye to my friends before I left.

Ricard Gonzalez was the Cairo-based correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Pais. In mid-June, the Spanish authorities advised him to leave Egypt immediately. Last year, three Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to jail on charges of supporting the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. One of them, Australian national Peter Greste, has been transferred home. This week, an Egyptian court announced that it would deliver its verdict on the trial at the end of July.

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