The raid reinforced the climate of terror for media personnel in Egypt on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, which is celebrated today.
Journalists’ Syndicate president Yahia Qallash said around 50 plainclothes policemen stormed into the syndicate’s headquarters on the evening of 1 May to arrest the two journalists, who had been staging a sit-in inside in protest against warrants for their arrest and searches of their homes.
They are Amr Badr, the founder and editor-in-chief of the opposition news website Yanair (January), and Mahmoud El-Sakka, a journalist who works for the site.
In response to this “unprecedented” raid on the Journalists’ Syndicate, its members have been protesting inside its headquarters and on social networks to demand the release of the journalists and the interior minister’s resignation.
The NGO Journalists Against Torture has announced a 24-hour strike in solidarity with the Syndicate, which convened a general assembly for tomorrow and announced a permanent sit-in inside until the meeting.
“We condemn this raid on the headquarters of the Journalists’ Syndicate and we call on the authorities to intervene to obtain the immediate release of these journalists and the withdrawal of the charges against them,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “Journalists have no place being in prison, especially when all they did was criticize the government.”
According to the Syndicate’s charter, a member of the prosecutor-general’s office must know and the president of the Syndicate or his representative must be present when the police enter its headquarters.
The interior ministry issued a statement denying that the police stormed the building or that violence was used. It said the two journalists were arrested without use of force, as a result of a decision by the prosecutor’s office and in coordination with the head of security at the Syndicate.
The charges against the two journalists include spreading false rumours about Egypt’s decision to return two small islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia and inciting protests against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government.
The police prevented the holding of a conference inside the Syndicate’s headquarters on 1 May to mark Labour Day. They also prevented many journalists and demonstrators from entering the building on 25 April, when a series of demonstrations throughout Cairo were quickly dispersed and dozens of journalists who had gone to cover them were detained for several hours.
The Journalists’ Syndicate filed a complaint against the interior ministry about the abuses against journalists during the 25 April demonstrations.
Sakka, one of the two journalists arrested on 1 May, was previously arrested on 30 December on various charges including membership of an illegal group. He was released at the start of March pending the outcome of the investigation.
Currently the world’s fourth biggest prison for journalists (after China, Eritrea and Iran), Egypt is ranked 159th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.