Working as a correspondent in Egypt is not easy nowadays. Two weeks ago, I had to leave Egypt in a hurry, the country that I had called home for almost four years.
Spanish authorities warned me that I was at imminent risk of being arrested and prosecuted. I was shocked, because I had never been directly harassed by Egyptian authorities or had any problems renewing my press card at the Foreign Press Center.
Given recent precedents, I decided to follow the advice of the Spanish government and not return to Cairo. According to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are 18 reporters currently incarcerated in Egypt, although the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information suggests this number actually exceeds 60. Among them is Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan. He is a young photojournalist who has been in preventive detention for more than 23 months for taking pictures at a demonstration, and is very sick.
Although brave Egyptian reporters who move away from the official narrative are in the gravest danger, foreign journalists have also been targeted. Australian reporter Peter Greste spent more than a year in jail before being deported for his work for Al Jazeera English channel. His colleague, Mohamed Fahmy, who at the time had dual Egyptian and Canadian citizenship, along with Baher Mohamed, is still locked in a legal battle to regain his freedom.
As I explained in an article for my Spanish newspaper, EL PAIS, I still don’t know why I was singled out among the community of correspondents. Certainly, I had contacts with the opposition, but most of my colleagues also had them. It is part of our work as neutral reporters. My newspaper has been very critical of the current government in its editorials, and I wrote several articles on thorny issues. However, our coverage has not been of particular exception in the international press.
Maybe my problems stem from the publication of the book, Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which I analyze the trajectory of the Islamist movement after the Egyptian Revolution. However, my book was published back in March and it is not less critical of the Brotherhood than it is of the current regime.
The Egyptian government reacted with a public note titled, “The false claims made by Ricard Gonzalez,” signed by Badr Abdel Aty, spokesperson for the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This text suggests that I fabricated the story of my departure for political reasons. Abdel Aty argues that my aim was to damage the image of the Egyptian government. This is completely false. I insist that I received a very clear warning by the Spanish authorities, advising to leave Egypt urgently.
On Sunday, EL PAIS published an editorial supporting me and criticizing the lack of press freedoms in Egypt. In fact, it’s very easy to prove that I’m being truthful. The director of EL PAIS was also aware of the warning by the Spanish government regarding me, as they were in close contact with Spanish Ambassador Arturo Avello Diez del Corral.
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that I failed to provide any evidence that Egyptian authorities were going to take legal action against me. I just can’t provide any evidence, because I was not the one who made the assessment that I was at imminent risk of being detained. Maybe the assessment wasn’t accurate, and the Egyptian authorities were not planning to indict me. I don’t know. I just decided to trust my government, because the consequences of not doing so could’ve been dire.
I would just like to add a final point. Given the wide constraints that Egyptian journalists face, the work of foreign correspondents is especially important. They are able to cover issues that could never get through the filter of censorship or self-censorship in mainstream Egyptian media. For example, it was thanks to the presence of foreign media and the courage of some activists that secret prisons were revealed, where horrendous abuses take place. Without the coverage of foreign media, the voices of many would be buried in a spiral of fear. Hence, it is crucial that Western governments are committed to preserving spaces of freedom for foreign correspondents in Egypt.