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Shawkan on repression of freedom of expression

May 3, 2019

On World Press Freedom Day, Egyptian photojournalist Shawkan writes about his experience in 'half-day imprisonment' following his release from jail and the need for states to protect freedom of expression.

Ägypten | Massenverurteilungen mit 75 Todesurteilen für Anhänger der Muslimbruderschaft
Image: Reuters/A. A. Dalsh

On this day last year, the world, particularly the press community, was celebrating World Press Freedom Day. As was I, who — while behind prison bars — received one of the most prestigious press freedom awards, the Guillermo Cano Prize sponsored by UNESCO.

The award prompted the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to release a statement speaking out against me and against my having been awarded the prize while in jail. They claimed in this statement that I was a terrorist. In their view, according to this statement, a high-profile institution such as UNESCO should not honor or give the prize to a terrorist and criminal.

Their actions made the organization even more determined to award me the prize and to renew their demand for my immediate and unconditional release!

Honored in absentia

At the time of the awards ceremony, I was unable to travel to Ghana — the country organizing the celebration — because I had remained detained in relation to false charges that have nothing to do with the nature of my work or even my ideology.

 As a result, I was honored in absentia in the hope that I would be released next year, and here the next year has come… but what has it brought me?

I am still suffering from the bitterness of the unfair judgment against me. The judge not only imprisoned me for five years but took further punitive measures, adding another penalty atop the original penalty, which puts me under police control and surveillance for five years, freezing my cashflow and dismissing the possibility for me to hold government jobs — if any at all!

Read more:Jailed Egyptian photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid to receive UN press freedom prize 

Under surveillance

As for police control and surveillance: the punishment is an intolerable situation in every sense of the word. I have to leave my life, my freedom and go to the police station to sit and sleep on the floor, deprived of my right to move and communicate with my friends and family. I must remain there, still from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning!

 This means that I am prevented from returning to my normal life, from relationships and communications to work and mobility. It is an incomplete freedom, a quasi-freedom. This type of punishment was issued during the days of the monarchy in 1945. It was intended for criminals — when it was important to isolate them from society at night. This law governing control and surveillance required the person who is being monitored to remain in his home throughout the night.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid Shawkan
Zeid picked up a camera again shortly after his release from prison in MarchImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Desouki

The philosophy of such punishment does not overlook the importance of the reintegration of the criminal gradually into the community; it stressed that the person who is under the police surveillance must stay at home and not leave that home during the night — provided he has a place of residence within the local police jurisdiction.

Explicit violation of human rights

What is happening now is contrary to the philosophy and the text of the law, because people like me who are suffering from the same punishment are detained in the police station throughout the night, isolated from our lives and our families. This is an explicit violation of the text of the law and against human rights. It is like a half-day imprisonment.

You can imagine the way we are being treated in the police department: we are humiliated and mistreated. I am still deprived of my dignity and my freedom.

Read more: Egypt frees award-winning photojournalist from prison after 5-year term 

The approach of some leaders of larger nations that once served as examples for freedom of the press has shifted as they have begun to focus on how to obstruct and criticize the press. The U.S. president, for example, has been calling the press an "enemy of the American people." No wonder that the beacon of freedom ranks lower today on press freedom indices than in the past, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Likewise, both France and Germany — the two most powerful political and economic states in the EU — are no longer among the Top 10 in the same index.

Reporters without Borders Infographic

Black hole nations

States like China, Turkey, North Korea, Singapore and countries in the Arab world are like the black hole when it comes to freedom of the press. The text of the laws that were written with the intention to protect what is published in the media are being manipulated by phenomena like fake news, deep fakes, post-truth etc. Others use these accusations to suppress journalists and press freedom based on these allegations. While I do not deny the existence of these phenomena and the seriousness of their manipulation of the public opinion, my objection here is the way governments deal with these phenomena. The black hole countries are preparing to use the "law" to suppress press freedom!!  

I can’t forget, while I am writing this article, my fellow detainees, the two Reuters journalists who have been awarded the 2018 Guillermo Cano/UNESCO Prize for Freedom of the Press. I support and join the campaign calling for their immediate and unconditional release, and the release of all of my fellow journalists in my country, Egypt, and worldwide. With bitterness, I should add here those journalists who are still missing, those whose whereabouts are unknown, as is what happened to them.

The question that remains in my mind is: Why is all this repression of journalists happening in the world, from arrests and assaults to kidnappings and murder? Or even, sometimes, dismembering, as has happened to our colleague Jamal Khashoggi in his country's consulate in Istanbul. How is this happening while the whole world is watching? Not to mention the impunity for the systematic assault on journalists across the world. How can we explain that?

Irresponsible nature of the elite press

I believe that Third World regimes practice all kinds of repression and stand in full hostility not only to freedom of the press but also freedom in its comprehensive sense.

Read more:'I am a journalist, not a criminal' 

The elite press has played an irresponsible role due to its close proximity to the political authorities and makes deals with it, which result in a significant loss of independence. This has resulted in the emergence of blogging or what is known as citizen journalism, the spread of social media and the independent journalist.

Here, the unprecedented repression of freedom of expression and freedom of journalism has begun, because the citizen's press has started to convey what matters to people. They express information and provide different angles of events; everyone is telling his own story without the need to refer to the elite press to give their approval, something which has upset many governments in the world. It is the same thing that has made authorities around the world feel that it has begun to lose a weapon of great importance, which is the weapon of public opinion. These governments have, in turn, begun to threaten the major social network companies and make use of them to serve political and economic interests.

It is not possible at this time to rely on the press and newspapers as our sole sources of information, but as other ways of getting our information have arisen, there is also the "dumping" of information. This dumping has caused the freelancer journalist to be increasingly threatened, imprisoned, killed and abducted in an obscene way. This is a result of society losing its faith in the elite press that has failed and continues to fail the average person!

But how can we protect opinion, writing and publishing, away from conferences, lights, hotels, and press releases? When will there be serious steps to protect the freedom of opinion, publishers, bloggers, journalists and journalism, in the face of what they are subjected to, of gross violations practiced against them?

These questions remain open ...

This guest commentary was written by Shawkan, the award-winning Egyptian photojournalist who was arrested in 2013 after taking photos of the Rabaa Massacre. He was released from prison in early March after spending more than five years behind bars.