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Over 650 days on, young photojournalist Shawkan is still imprisoned without charge. Like him, many other Egyptian journalists are being held in Egypt’s jails paying with their life for a ‘crime’ they didn’t commit.
Dozens of Egyptian journalists gathered at Egypt’s Journalists’ Syndicate on 10 June to protest against the imprisonment of their colleagues, lamenting the ongoing clampdown on press freedoms in Egypt. The protest also included a brief sit-in and a partial strike inside the syndicate’s headquarters.
Holding posters of detained journalists and banners calling for their release, participants voiced their anger over the different violations journalists face. Some of them were even carrying a symbolic coffin for the press, expressing their dissatisfaction at current conditions.
A far from ideal background to 10 June which marked Egypt’s Press Day as there’s not much to celebrate for journalists.
The protest wasn’t just a platform to push for better journalism, fair wages and basic job rights. It was another call – amid several campaigns by local and international journalists – on the Egyptian state to end journalists’ detention, and introduce laws that protect journalists when doing their job.
Above all, it was a reminder of how jailing journalists for reporting about crimes and for expressing opinions is unacceptable.
27-year-old Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou-Zeid, known professionally as Shawkan, was arrested in Cairo on 14 August 2013 while he was covering the violent dispersal by security forces of the sit-in in Rabaa Al-Adaweya staged by supporters of ousted president Morsi.
Shawkan has been unjustly detained serving one of the longest pre-trial detention periods since his arrest. He has not been formally charged, his detention has been extended every 45 days, and his appeal for release has been denied.
If he hasn’t been charged with a single crime, why keeping this young photographer locked in prison? Just for doing his job!
A letter written by Shawkan to mark his 600th day behind bars reads: “My passion is photography, but I am paying the price for my passion with my life. Without it, a part of me is missing.”
Mahmoud Kamel, among the several board members who took part in the protest at the press syndicate, called Shawkan’s prolonged detention an ‘’arbitrary measure’’.
For his lawyer Ahmed Abd El Naby, Shawkan is a ‘’prisoner of conscience’’.
Shawkan is neither a political activist nor a criminal. Yet, he’s been detained for exercising his right to freedom of expression to work as a photojournalist. He’s been shamefully treated like a criminal and, he said, badly beaten by authorities. Worse, he’s been deprived of the freedom to see the world through his camera lens.
Shawkan’s attorney requested the court several times to bail the defendant after presenting his work permits that prove he was doing his job at the time of his arrest. Regrettably, that did not help.
Shawkan is now trapped in a black hole, where no-one knows about his situation, waiting to take his freedom back. His lengthy detention is psychologically unbearable.
In his letter from Tora prison, he writes: ‘’I am dying. No-one knows what’s going inside me. My spirit fights to stay alive.’’
According to activists who launched a campaign in support of Shawkan, his health was rapidly deteriorating and suffered from anaemia and depression.
The media crackdown is clearly harsher for Egyptian journalists than for their colleagues from abroad. While he remains imprisoned, other foreign journalists who had been arrested with Shawkan or after him were later released. For instance, French photojournalist Louis Jammes and American journalist Mike Giglio were freed two hours after their detention.
In February, Australian Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was released and deported to his native country under the provisions of a new law allowing foreign nationals to be deported to serve their sentences, or be retried, in their own countries. He had spent 400 days in jail in Egypt. The trial of his colleagues is ongoing.
Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who gave up his Egyptian citizenship to qualify for deportation, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed were released on bail in February after more than a year in custody. The three were arrested in December 2013 on various charges including assisting a terrorist organisation, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, and “spreading false news harmful to national security.”
In contrast to the widespread international coverage and solidarity with the Al-Jazeera detainees, other detentions of journalists in Egypt haven’t sparked the same condemnation. In part, because they are sadly not high-profile cases. And because of the unfortunate disparate treatment an Egyptian journalist receives from the authorities.
Egyptians don’t have foreign embassies to call for their release, or governments to raise their voices in their defence.
Syndicate board member Kamel, who writes for Al-Akhbar newspaper, admitted there’s a preferential handling of cases concerning western journalists as a result of pressure their embassies put on the Egyptian state.
‘’I believe Egypt is more likely to release foreign journalists in order to safeguard its reputation in the eye of the international community’’, El Naby said openly.
But Egyptian journalists deserve as much attention. It is vital that all those concerned with free press campaign to demand their immediate and unconditional release.
The state has its part to play in ensuring all detained journalists are freed. Journalism is not a crime. It has to provide laws that ensure journalist’s safety and make any attack or targeting of journalists based on their work punishable.
As the only constitutionally-allowed professional body for journalists, the press syndicate itself needs to take more action against crackdowns on journalists. By continuing to file complaints to the public prosecutor in relation to imprisoned journalists, and reiterating requests to the prosecutor to release all of them. Or by providing new legislation that penalizes attacks on journalists, detention, arbitrary suspension or dismissal.
Also, it’s probably time that the body’s membership is reformed and opened up. According to an outdated, discriminatory press law, only journalists who work full-time at print newspapers can become members to work in the field. Meaning that most of Egypt’s journalists –those who work in other news outlets or are part-timers- don’t have the syndicate membership, which in the state’s eyes can make their work illegal. But all journalists have the right to practice the profession.
Such restrictive procedure means the syndicate only protects its members instead of helping all media professionals if their rights are violated, whether in the street or in jail.
Besides that, field reporters are often hired as freelancers for years with no official contract, which denies them their most basic rights. They could have contracts with media institutions, after a six-month period, for example, giving them some minimum work guarantees.
Egypt was ranked among the ten worst jailers of journalists in the world last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists. It was also classified as the third most dangerous country for journalists.
In early May, Amnesty International released a report documenting how Egyptian authorities have been using jails and court sentences to target journalists who challenge the authorities’ political narrative and human rights record. The report includes the case of Shawkan too.
Whether political, arbitrary or because caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, arrests and indefinite detentions without charge for Egypt’s journalists are not tolerable.
The grim reality is that instead of getting journalists out of jail, more journalists are being detained in Egypt.
‘’We had 27 journalists on the list, we’ve been waiting for their release for the last month, and now we have 32 detained journalists’’, Kamel voiced out.
Unless this gross injustice stops, the risk is that many like Shawkan will be soon forgotten.
At the 14 May hearing, Shawkan’s detention was renewed for another 45 days. If ever referred to criminal prosecution, his lawyer said, he could be sentenced to death.
The other risk is that we will see the health state of journalism in Egypt going from bad to worse in a country with a much hostile, politicized media landscape that leaves very little space for independent reporting.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Between 2010 and 2011, she lived in Palestine. Her articles have appeared in the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, IRIN and The Majalla among others. She can be followed on Twitter at @AlessandraBajec