By Callie Plapinger
On June 25, 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a special report detailing the imprisonment of Egyptian journalists, which has reached a record high in the last year. Under the guise of protecting “national security,” the Egyptian government has detained at least 18 journalists, issued gag orders to many others, and shut down entire media outlets across the country. Such atrocities as torture, kidnapping, and beatings have all become commonplace in the persecution of Egyptian journalists. Even prominent and well-established news sources are not immune from persecution, as Al-Jazeera and other popular media sources have been banned from operating in Egypt.
While the evidence of the suppression and abuse of journalists is mounting, senior Egyptian officials continue to deny the allegations. High-level officials, such as the prosecutor-general and the minister of transitional justice, have repudiated the claims that any journalists have been held in relation to their work.
However, the cases outlined in the CPJ report suggest otherwise. Abdelrahman Abdelsalam Yaqot, a journalist for an online and independent news publication called Karmoz, has been detained since March 21, 2015. When he told police officers that he was a photographer, they proceeded to beat him before searching his apartment without a warrant. After being incarcerated, Yaqot, along with a group of other detainees, have been continuously subjected to “beatings and electric torture” at the hands of Egyptian authorities, according to the report.
In another case, authorities arrested Youssef Shaaban, an editor and reporter for Al-Bedaiah, when he appeared in court for an appeal hearing. Shaaba and nine other activists were convicted of assaulting officers, though all of them deny the allegations and conversely claim that they were attacked. Both cases, along with the others detailed in the report, point to a flawed justice system, whereby police officers are left unchecked and can abuse prisoners without fear of consequences.
Aside from the practice of imprisoning and abusing journalists, the implications of these standardized occurrences extend far beyond any single government misstep. The widespread restriction of the press severely limits the knowledge of the national and global public regarding pressing issues and leads to under-reporting in many parts of Egypt.
The Sinai Peninsula is a region that is rarely covered by media outlets, and one that is conflict-ridden, with clashes between Egyptian security forces and Islamist militant groups continuing to occur. Without media coverage of this conflict, there is a dangerous lack of public knowledge, and the knowledge that does exist is biased toward the government forces.
Furthermore, without a parliament, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi possesses “full legislative authority,” and is capable of passing laws such as the “cybercrime” law. This law posits itself as anti-terrorism legislation created to combat the dismantling of “national unity” through cyber warfare and online terrorism. However, it also appears to serve as a means of continuing to imprison many journalists who operate on the Internet and openly oppose Sisi’s regime.
Despite the severe restriction of the Egyptian press, Sherif Mansour, the Middle East Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, is confident that the situation in Egypt can improve. Though direct change may not be realistic at the top levels of government, then certainly progress can be ushered by the journalistic community, as well as through the reinstatement and election of a new parliament.
By rebuilding the Egyption legislature, Mansour hopes that a “broader political landscape” will emerge to “challenge…the aggressive elements of the government.” Within the journalistic community, Mansour stresses the importance of bridging political divides that currently separate those journalists in favor of the army and those that support the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, according to Dr. David Ottaway, a Middle East Fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, President El-Sisi is “out to stifle all political activity…and criticism,” potential policies emerging from Egypt’s authoritarian government are highly unlikely. Given the silence inflicted on even the privately owned media, Dr. Ottaway asserts that the only “immediate hope” of liberating the Egyptian press lies in wealthy businessmen such as Naguib Sawiris. As the leader of his own political party as well as possessing the financial ability to pressure the government, Sawiris and others like him can “demand a freer media.” Dr. Ottaway also points out that if there are no “safety values” for dissidence, those dissenting factions will have no choice but to go “underground,” which he argues in turn will expose them to more violence.
The recent upward trend in the imprisonment of Egyptian journalists signifies the danger of an authoritarian government left unchecked. With torture, verbal abuse, and beatings emerging as commonplace practices among Egyptian authorities, reforms must be put in place so that journalism can thrive again throughout Egypt. A culture of corruption, denial, and repression renders change at the governmental level slow and likely rife with conflict and tumult. Despite the efforts of the journalistic community and business factions in Egypt, lasting change must come from the dominant executive branch of Egypt’s government in order to eradicate the pervasive nature of press restrictions—be that a change in policy, or a change in executive.
Callie Plapinger is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia]