Three leading figures of Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate including its head were sentenced on Saturday to two years in prison for harboring two fugitives at the syndicate headquarters and spreading false news.
The three journalists — syndicate head Yehia Qallash, general secretary Gamal Abdel Riheem and board member Khaled al-Balshy — did not attend the session. The misdemeanour court mandated that they each pay LE10,000 fine to suspend the implementation of the sentence until an appeal is filed.
Balshy, also head of the syndicate’s freedoms committee, received the news calmly as he talked to his lawyer on the phone, telling journalists that he does not want to further comment on the verdict, which he described as “reflective of the current atmosphere.” He added that the litigation process is ongoing and that the syndicate will appeal the verdict.
He was at the syndicate’s headquarters in downtown, where dozens of journalists were following the court proceedings. Journalists have not been allowed to attend the sessions, which started in June.
The case began with a conflict between the syndicate and Interior Ministry when police stormed the syndicate headquarters in May, arresting journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka.
Badr and Sakka were at the syndicate protesting the police raids of their homes and faced charges of inciting protests during an April sit-in at the syndicate and spreading false news concerned the Tiran and Sanafir island transfer deal. They were released following months of pretrial detention.
The unprecedented storming of the syndicate led to an emergency meeting of the General Assembly which released a statement calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, official apology by the presidency to the syndicate for the storming of the headquarters, releasing all journalists jailed in cases related to press freedoms, among other demands.
Balshy warned that this ruling should not be a distraction from the main issues facing journalists in Egypt today. “We have to focus on three issues now,” he told Mada Masr. “These are the draft law to regulate media and journalism, which I fear the parliament will pass quickly, journalists’ financial problems as a result of the current economic crisis, and the large number of detained journalists, which is our main task.”
Badr, one of the two journalists arrested when the syndicate headquarters were stormed in May, who was at the syndicate following the proceedings on Saturday told Mada Masr, “The ruling comes following a campaign against journalism and journalists, which has now reached its peak with this sentence against the syndicate’s head and two board members.”
“We hope the ruling will be overturned at appeal,” he added, “But this won’t happen without a strong movement on the part of the Journalists Syndicate in the coming period, not just against the ruling, but against the campaign against press freedom at large.”
Syndicate board member Abul Souad Mohamed described the ruling as “political” predicting that it will lead to “a state of anger among journalists that the state won’t be able to solve overnight.”
“The syndicate has filed dozens of complaints before the prosecutor general concerning the Interior Ministry’s attacks against journalists, as well as a complaint concerning the storming of the syndicate,” he said. “But the prosecution chose to respond only to the Interior Ministry’s complaint against the syndicate’s board members.”
Mohamed believes that the ruling undermines to social and journalistic work in society, at a time when the state has made great headway in its efforts to restrict the work of civil society.
Board member Mahmoud Kamel, agreed with Mohamed: “The three journalists pay the price of the syndicate taking a stance against it being stormed in what was a flagrant violation of the law and Constitution on the part of the Interior Ministry.”
“The syndicate has been defending the law, and will continue to, in the face of the Interior Ministry’s law of force,” Kamel added. “The syndicate is now paying the price of adopting any oppositional voice.”
The syndicate board will hold an emergency meeting on Saturday to decide how to respond to the ruling.