More than 200 members of the press gathered at the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo on Wednesday, chanting for the “32 detained journalists and hundreds dismissed from their job” as they commemorated Egyptian Journalist Day.
The syndicate’s freedoms committee had sent a general invitation to protest on June 10 to denounce the recent wave of arrests, arbitrary dismissals and low wages faced by local journalists. Several websites for both privately and state-owned newspapers, including Ahram Gate, Bedaya, Al-Mal and Al-Fagr, published statements supporting the demonstration.
Leading up to the protest, the syndicate also filed 13 complaints with the prosecutor general demanding the immediate release of all journalists currently detained pending investigations, and detailing alleged acts of torture inflicted upon those journalists while in custody.
Among the protesters was Ibrahim Aref, editor-in-chief of the privately owned Al-Bayan newspaper. Aref and a colleague were recently prosecuted on charges of publishing false information regarding the assassination of six prosecutors, news which the newspaper had subsequently amended and apologized for.
Recounting his arrest to Mada Masr, Aref says that police personnel broke into his office and took him to the prosecutor’s headquarters in the Fifth Settlement district of New Cairo. He claims the building was under construction at the time and had no running water. The next day, he was taken to the High Court, where he was left in a defendant’s dock for nine hours without food or water before being released later that night on bail, he says.
“According to the law, everything that happened was illegal,” Aref argues. “Journalists cannot be detained for cases related to publishing. I went through the experience and got out of prison, but other colleagues are still detained, and their children are cheering with us today.”
Aya Allam, wife of detained journalist Hassan al-Qabanni, was also at Wednesday’s protest.
She spoke to Mada of her husband’s arrest, saying, “On January 22, police broke into my home and arrested my husband. He disappeared for three days, and we filed a report with the general prosecutor about the incident. It turned out he was being kept at the National Security headquarters in Sheikh Zayed.”
When Qabbani was finally called before the prosecutor, he bore injuries that suggested he was beaten, electrocuted and tortured, Allam says.
She claims that her husband never faced specific charges. Instead, during interrogations he was asked about his opinion of the January 25, 2011 revolution, the events of June 30, 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Armed Forces. Later, his family learned that he was accused of spying for the Norwegian government, in the same case as Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Ali Bishr, according to Allam.
Qabbani is currently being detained in dire conditions at the Aqrab prison, Allam alleges. She adds that he is restricted to his cell, isn’t allowed access to newspapers or books and only receives one meal per day.
Furthermore, his wife claims that though the prison management has been issuing visiting permits to the families of the detainees at the prison, when they arrive, they are not permitted to enter. Qabbani hasn’t received visitors since February, Allam says, accusing prison staff of tampering with the visitor records.
Reda Gamal’s husband, journalist Reda al-Darawy, has been detained for close to two years, she says.
“After July 3  and the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood, my husband travelled to Amman to work at Yarmouk satellite channel, then to Lebanon to work at Al-Quds Channel. He came back on August 6 and was a guest speaker on Tamer Amin’s show. On his way out of Media Production City, he was arrested.”
Darawy has been accused of spying for Hamas and belonging to a banned group — the Muslim Brotherhood was declared an illegal organization at the end of 2013. He was later added as a defendant in the espionage case alongside former President Mohamed Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders, Gamal says.
Gamal adds that her husband was accused of illegally entering the Gaza Strip through the tunnels from Sinai, but refutes those charges.
“My husband visited the Strip twice for work, and the stamps on his passport prove it,” she argues.
His first visit was in July 2011, she says, when he conducted interviews with leaders of various political factions in Palestine for a piece that was published in the state-owned Akhbar al-Youm newspaper. Then under the Morsi administration, Darawy visited Gaza again to cover the truce agreement between Hamas and Israel, Gamal says.
Darawy has now been in custody for 22 months. A verdict is anticipated in his case on June 16.
Darawy’s case bears some similarities with that of journalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, who is also currently in detention pending investigations. His brother, Mohamed Abou Zeid, says that Shawkan was covering the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in after Morsi’s ouster in 2013, and had obtained permission to shoot photographs there from security forces in the area.
However, Shawkan was then arrested alongside a number of foreign journalists by men dressed in civilian clothing, Abou Zeid says. The foreign photojournalist were released, but Shawkan has remained in detention ever since.
Photographer Ahmed Gamal Zeyada, who was recently acquitted in a case related to violence at Al-Azhar University, says that his arrest was similar to Shawkan’s. Zeyada says he hadn’t met Shawkan prior to his arrest, but began exchanging letters with him following a march that was organized to draw attention to both of their arrests by their fellow photojournalists.
“After a while we became close friends, though we never met,” says Zeyada.
The arbitrary firing of journalists was also a core issue discussed by the protesters. Sahar Abdel Ghani, a journalist at the privately owned newspaper Al-Alam Al-Youm, says that she and 30 of her colleagues were fired due to budget cuts.
“We have been working for the newspaper for 13 years, and have put up with all the financial challenges throughout,” she says.
But despite the fact that she was fired under the pretext of budgetary constraints, Abdel Ghani claims that “the newspaper recently launched a new website and hired new reporters,” suggesting that the business wasn’t in such dire straits after all. She says she and her colleagues filed a wrongful termination complaint with the labor bureau, but nothing happened.
The Journalists Syndicate is currently in negotiations with the newspaper to either rehire the fired journalists or compensate them, she adds.
At the protest, around 150 journalists — most of them working for newspapers affiliated with political parties that have recently been shut down — declared they would go on strike.
Iman Ouf, a journalist for the privately owned Al-Mal newspaper and a member of the syndicate’s freedom committee that organized the demonstration, felt that Wednesday’s protest represented a good step toward solving the problem of journalists working in Egypt today.
“The number of participants wasn’t big, but it is a good start. Today is better than how things were before,” Ouf says.
Next, the syndicate plans to launch a campaign for a fair labor law, a unified contract for all journalists and an industry-wide a minimum wage, in addition to providing compensation for the families of the detained journalists, she continues.
The journalist adds that the regional and international support for the protest was a good indicator that journalists are capable of defending themselves. The protest received letters of support from the Arab Journalists Union and the International Union for Journalists, Ouf says, in addition to journalists syndicates in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, the European Union and the United States, and finally, from local political parties.