Egyptian journalists continue to face a critical threat to their freedom following the storming of the Journalists Syndicate headquarters by security forces on Sunday.
In an unprecedented violation, police entered the syndicate and arrested two journalists — Amr Badr, chief editor of the independent website Yanayer Gate, and Mahmoud Sakka, a reporter at the same news portal, accusing them of inciting protests during a sit-in at the syndicate.
The arrests followed a statement from the syndicate regarding threats to journalists and an attempt to storm the Journalist’s Syndicate last week, as well as an official complaint filed with the general prosecutor against Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar and the head of Cairo’s Security Directorate Khaled Abdel Aal.
On Sinai Liberation Day – Tuesday, April 25 — police forces blocked Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street, where the headquarters of the Journalist’s Syndicate is located in downtown Cairo, following calls to demonstrate on the steps outside the syndicate. Police also prevented access to several other locations where protests were planned against the transfer of Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
Journalists were prevented from entering the syndicate and only a number of government supporters were permitted access, whereupon they assaulted journalists and attempted to storm the syndicate under the protection of the police.
The storming of the syndicate follows a number of attacks on press freedoms in recent months and the dissatisfaction of government officials regarding local media, as vocalized by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in several recent speeches.
A statement on the violations of press freedoms in Egypt was issued by the Journalists Syndicate’s Liberties Committee in February, titled: Journalism under the guillotine of assaults and arrests.
According to this statement, a total of 782 violations were perpetrated against journalists in 2015. Most of these were carried out by the Interior Ministry and other state institutions, which subjected journalists to arrests, raids, detentions, imprisonment, trumped-up charges, the obstruction of their work, the destruction of equipment and punitive measures against attempts to document these violations.
There has also been a return to historical methods of violating press freedoms, such as obstructing the printing of newspapers and confiscating and banning publications. Online news portals and privately owned newspapers were also substantially affected by the crackdown, the statement noted.
These violations have taken place in the context of a vacuum in effective legislation regulating the profession and protecting journalists.
In late 2014, the government of then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb established a committee to prepare two draft laws regulating journalism and media and the incarceration of journalists, which it concluded in August 2015. Despite this, the draft legislation was shelved. President of the Journalists Syndicate Yehiya Qalash told Mada Masr he hoped Sisi would have used his executive legislative powers to pass these laws before the establishment of the parliament.
Despite the efforts of the National Legislative Committee for Media and Journalism, several pro-government journalists have criticized the draft laws. Osama Heikal, former information minister, who currently presides over the parliamentary Media and Culture Committee, hailed the draft law regulating journalism and media as unconstitutional. In response, Qalash claimed Heikal was purposefully leading a media campaign against the law to obstruct it.
A few days after the draft laws were finalized, pro-government media figure Mostafa Bakry announced that another committee was working on a different bill, “in compliance with the national Constitution.” This was later confirmed by the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, which, citing Minister of Legal Affairs Magdy al-Agaty, reported that a specialized legislative committee in the Ministry of Justice was preparing a draft law regulating media and journalism. According to Agaty, this committee was entrusted with drafting the new legislation because “the journalistic community could not agree upon a specific committee to draft such a law.”
The Journalists Syndicate responded in a statement expressing “grave concern” at Agaty’s remarks, particularly that “the Justice Ministry’s legislative committee would unilaterally review the draft, without consulting the syndicate or the National Legislative Committee for Media and Journalism.” The syndicate added that the remarks set a “dangerous precedent,” and “represent a serious blow to the constitution,” diverging from Sisi’s request that the media and journalistic community draw up their own laws to regulate the profession.
Salah Eissa, secretary general of the National Media Council and member of the National Legislation Committee for Media and Journalism, told Mada Masr that one of the government’s apparatuses does not want to recognize the draft laws formulated by the committee, as they believe “it is more democratic than necessary, and that the time is not suitable for such legislation.”
In response to this resistance against the National Legislative Committee’s draft laws, amendments were made by the Justice Ministry’s committee. These amendments resulted in governmental acceptance of some of the provisions of the previous draft law. The National Legislative Committee subsequently cooperated with the state-controlled committee in preparing a new draft law to regulate media and journalism.
In an interview with the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper last month, Eissa commented that after the first draft law is finalized, the matter of abolishing prison sentences for publication offenses would be considered. On April 25, the secretary general of the National Legislative Committee and President of the Journalists Syndicate Diaa Rashwan announced the conclusion of the joint committee’s efforts to review the legislation, adding that the drafts would be submitted to the government for review.
The most recent draft law stipulates the creation of national committees to oversee various media. It also necessitates written permission from the respective national committees for all online news websites, which is to be decided within 90 days of application, and that such sites be managed by companies with capital amounting to half a million Egyptian pounds or more before commencing publication. Chief editors of such sites must be Egyptian nationals, with at least 10 years work experience.
Publication and broadcasting offences can be subject to fines of LE250,000-LE500,000, according to the draft laws.
With the 25th anniversary of the United Nation’s Windhoek Declaration, the basis for the commemoration of May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, Egypt’s journalists have a long way to go in order to realize a free, independent and pluralistic media environment as a necessary precursor for press freedom.