Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned a new wave of arrests of journalists in Egypt as the authorities clamp down even harder on media freedom seven years after the massive demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and two months before Field-Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi runs for reelection as president.
Around 15 journalists and citizen-journalists have been questioned, arrested and imprisoned in the past four months, or have simply disappeared, and so far only two of them have been released. According to the information obtained by RSF, there have in all been around 30 names on a list of journalists sought by the security services.
The victims of the new wave of arrests include at least six journalists suspected of working with Mekameleen TV, an opposition TV channel linked to the banned Muslim Brotherhood that is broadcast in Egypt but is based in Turkey.
According to several Egyptian newspapers, the authorities are systematically rounding up Mekameleen TV contributors on the basis of information obtained by questioning intermediaries – now also detained – who were buying video from journalists on behalf of the TV channel.
Other freelance journalists – the exact number cannot be determined because of a lack of transparency on the part of authorities – have also been detained for allegedly spreading false information. All risk being tried for “membership of a banned group,” a charge widely used in political trials in Egypt.
“Seven years after a revolution in the name of democratic ideals, Egypt’s media freedom record is now disastrous,” RSF said. “Egypt has become one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists, the crackdown gets harsher all the time, and media freedom has been completely throttled. There is now an urgent need for President Sisi to stop suppressing the country’s last independent voices and to stop treating journalists as his enemies.”
Mekameleen TV and critical journalists
Egyptian government hostility towards Mekameleen TV is not new. Arrests were made after the TV channel broadcast recordings of conversations in 2014 and 2015 that were very compromising for the army, but most of those detained in the first “Mekameleen affair” ended up being released.
This time, Egyptian human rights groups such as the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) fear that those suspected of collaborating with Mekameleen TV are in the “police cooler” – an expression used for those arrested sometimes almost at random in the street or cafés who remain in provisional detention until prosecutors find something to justify their arrest.
No one knows the exact number or identity of those held. According to the occasional information emerging from hearings held to extend provisional detention, anything from five to ten people have been arrested in the latest Mekameleen affair. According to ANHRI, the only things they have in common is that they are “young and post on social networks or demonstrate.”
Ahmed el Sakhawy, a journalist suspected of working for Mekameleen TV who was arrested at his home on 25 September, was held incommunicado and was reported missing for 27 days. He is now one of those accused in the Mekameleen affair.
Neither the Egyptian authorities nor the Mekameleen TV management have so far responded to RSF’s request for information.
The journalists recently detained on suspicion of “spreading false information” or “membership of a banned group” also include Mohamed Hassan al Husseini, a young freelance cameraman who was arrested on a Cairo business street on 12 September as be was about to do a report on price hikes.
His family spent more than two weeks without any news of him. Asked about the possible reasons for his arrest., an Egyptian official speaking on condition of anonymity replied: “Some countries don’t like [journalists] covering embarrassing subjects.”
At least 27 journalists and citizen-journalists are currently detained in connection with their work in Egypt, which is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.