Egypt is among the four worst jailers of journalists in 2018, along with Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The number of journalists detained in Egypt stands at 25 this year, up from the 2017 record of 20.
The CPJ 2018 annual survey, which was published last week, stated that a total of 251 journalists were in detention around the globe, the highest number being in Turkey, where 68 journalists are held in prison. The total number has decreased from 2017, when 272 journalists were detained worldwide.
“The past three years have recorded the highest number of jailed journalists since CPJ began keeping track, with consecutive records set in 2016 and 2017. Turkey, China and Egypt were responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world for the third year in a row,” the report read.
According to the CPJ, 19 journalists in Egypt were detained in 2018 over “spreading false news.” Leveling this charge is a tool of retaliation that has been used since 2013 against individuals deemed by the government to be enemies of the state, Sherif Mansour, MENA program coordinator at the CPJ, explained to Mada Masr on Wednesday.
The use of this charge has also increased markedly in recent years — it is up from nine cases in 2015 — which Mansour believes is due to its normalization by US President Donald Trump and other leaders in the international community, as well as what he termed “recent setbacks” to democracy in Egypt.
The report focused on Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan), who was arrested pending the Rabea sit-in dispersal case, which dates back to August 14, 2013, when security forces were deployed to forcefully disperse thousands of protestors expressing support for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated former President Mohamed Morsi at Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda squares.
Despite the fact that Shawkan was sentenced to five years in September 2018, having been held in remand detention since August 2013 — which ought to mean that he completed his sentence in August of this year — the CPJ has stated that “authorities are holding Shawkan for an additional six months for unpaid fines relating to unspecified damages during the 2013 protests, according to his lawyer.”
CPJ has also listed blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim, political activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, blogger and activist Wael Abbas — who has recently been released — and satirist Shady Abu Zeid among the detained journalists in Egypt.
Mansour explained to Mada Masr that these names were added to the list of detained journalists according to the committee’s criteria, which bases its definition on several points: “The content provided by the person, the topics they tackle, and the nature of charges they are facing and whether these charges are related to freedom of expression”.
“Any person who collects or distributes information or views regarding public affairs” is considered by the organization to be a journalist, Mansour said, adding that the CPJ also tries to avoid subscribing to government definitions or control regarding who is — and who is not — a journalist.
Accordingly, the CPJ considers Abd El Fattah, who had a weekly op-ed in Al-Shorouk newspaper; Abbas, who addressed critical topics on his blog; Ibrahim, who ran a popular Facebook page, YouTube channel and blog; as well as Abu Zeid, who uploaded his satirical video work to his channel on YouTube, to be journalists.
Conversations about the role of journalists and freedom of expression in Egypt have most recently been dominated by two major cases, 621/2018 and 441/2018, which involve a wide array of journalists, bloggers, lawyers and activists all facing charges of spreading false news and joining an illegal organization.
Mansour highlighted that the CPJ has also identified what they call “anti-state trials,” which include defendants that governments, such as Egypt’s, deal with as enemies of the state, either because they are affiliated with a group that the state has outlawed, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, or because they write about groups, such as these, which are critical of the government. He believes that this approach represses all attempts to discuss matters of public concern in the media.