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In Egypt, imprisoned for telling the story

Naomi Conrad, Cairo
June 25, 2015

Egypt's imprisonment of journalists is at an all time high, according to a report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists: This comes amid an atmosphere of censorship. Naomi Conrad reports from Cairo.

Journalists demonstrating against attacks on members of the press (2014) (Foto: Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists demonstrating against attacks on members of the press (2014)Image: AFP/Getty Images

He should have stopped his brother, Mohammed Abu Zaid said, staring down at his clenched hands, but he didn't. He shrugged: "I told him not to go to work that day, but he kept on saying: No, it's my job. I have to go."

And so, on August 14, 2013, his brother Mahmoud, a 28-year-old freelance photojournalist who goes by his nickname Shawkan, took his camera and headed off to cover the protest camp at Rabaa where thousands had gathered to demonstrate against the deposal of former president and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Morsi. That day, security forces moved into the camps, killing hundreds of protesters.

Hearing the news, Mohammed said he was terrified that something might have happened to his brother. He was right to be afraid: Shawkan was detained while leaving the square and has been languishing in jail ever since.

Sitting at his parents' small apartment in a lower middle-class district in Cairo under one of Mahmoud's pictures - a swirling dervish - hanging on the wall, Mohammed told DW he has been wracked by guilt ever since and is convinced he should have tried harder to prevent his brother from going to work.

A picture Shawkan took before he was detained
A picture Shawkan took before he was detainedImage: DW/N. Conrad

Journalists jailed for doing their work

Mohammed's family told DW that he was "just a journalist doing his work" - and that, in Egypt today, that occupation is dangerous: A report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Thursday found that the Egyptian authorities were holding at least 18 journalists behind bars in relation for their reporting, the highest number since the organization began recording data in Egypt in 1990.

The threat of imprisonment in Egypt, according to the authors, "is part of an atmosphere in which authorities pressure media outlets to censor critical voices and issue gag orders on sensitive topics."

In a February fact-finding mission to Egypt, the CPJ said it spoke to high-level officials, including the prosecutor-general and the minister of transitional justice, who denied that Egypt was holding any journalists in jail in relation to their work.

Human rights activists disagree. Far more reporters are currently behind bars in Egypt, according to human rights lawyer and head of Arabic Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid. He said Egyptian authorities are holding 63 journalists and bloggers, many of who have been imprisoned since 2013 without a trial. This comes amid a wide-spread crackdown on activists.

Lawyer: One of the worst periods for journalists

Eid's cluttered office in downtown Cairo is decorated with awards, framed pictures of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and the tear gas canisters he said security forces threw at him and other protesters during the 2011 demonstrations in Tahrir Square that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. He said the current period "was the worst period for journalists in Egypt" in his 24-year career as human rights lawyer.

Eid said ever since the army ousted former Morsi the regime run by ex-army officer turned President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's was cracking down on journalists deemed critical of the regime. Many were being held on fabricated accusations of being part of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood, or vague charges of spreading false rumors. Being a journalist today, Eid said, "is one of the most dangerous jobs in Egypt."

Gamal Eid (Foto: Naomi Conrad/DW)
Gamal Eid: "The worst period for journalists"Image: DW/N. Conrad

Accordingly, he added, "many stories are just not being told," because journalists were afraid of retribution. Reporting on the military, which controls wide swaths of the economy, including many businesses, was a "clear red line." Others taboo topics included the security forces and the police as well as the ongoing military campaign against Islamists in the Sinai.

The government's strict monitoring of online media has also led Eid to self-censor his tweets, he said.

Some media outlets banned

Some outlets such as Qatari network Al-Jazeera, which the Egyptian government deems to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, no longer operate in Egypt and several of the organization's journalists have been arrested in Egypt. One of them is Abdallah Elshamy, who was also arrested while covering the Rabaa protests for Al-Jazeera Arabic. He was released in June of last year after going on hunger strike and now lives in Qatar. He told DW that when he left the country, he knew he wouldn't be able to go back to Egypt. "It's just too dangerous," he said.

Others were less fortunate. In Cairo, Shawkan's family members held a letter he had written, a desperate, hand-written plea to other journalists to fight for the right to freedom of expression.

"If you think the fire will not get you, look around," he wrote.