“Ever since Gen. Sisi seized power in Egypt in 2013, the press freedom situation has worsened steadily while the number of arbitrary arrests of journalists has continued to grow,” said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF’s legal unit.
“Many journalists are currently denied their freedom for no valid reason and the cases of Wael Abbas and Hisham Gaafar are just the first that RSF will refer to the United Nations. It is essential that the UN should put pressure on the Egyptian authorities and obtain their release.”
A well-known Egyptian journalist and blogger who has often covered police violence, Abbas, 43, has received international awards from such entities as the BBC, CNN and Human Rights Watch. He has also often posted about human rights violations and police abuses on Twitter, which was until recently the last space for (relatively) free speech in Egypt and where he had 350,000 followers.
Arrested at his home near Cairo on 23 May, Abbas is accused of being a member of a “terrorist organization” – the government’s label for the Muslim Brotherhood – and of publishing false news. These two charges are used almost systematically against government opponents and have no legal or factual basis. The authorities have not said which information published by Abbas constituted false news. And the claim that he belongs to terrorist organization has no credibility. Furthermore, he has long been an outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood. The only real grounds for his arrest was his use of the right to free speech and the freedom to inform.
Gaafar, 53, has been deprived of his freedom for no valid reason for the past 33 months, ever since his arrest on 21 October 2015. He, too, is accused of belonging to a “terrorist” group. He often criticized the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions.
Given the time Gaafar has been held without trial, the lack of appropriate medical care for his various ailments, the conditions in which he is being held (his cell is not even lit) and the spurious grounds for his arrest, his detention is also clearly arbitrary and contrary to international law. In his case, too, the real reason for his arrest was his use of the right to freedom of expression.
RSF is referring their cases to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a UN Human Rights Council offshoot, because it has the competence to determine whether individual cases of detention contravene international law. If the Working Group agrees that these two journalists are being held arbitrarily, RSF wants it to say so officially and to call on the Egyptian authorities to free them.
In Egypt, at least 32 journalists and citizen-journalists are currently detained in connection with their work. Few of them have been tried. Most have been detained preventively for months or even years and, in all cases, on trumped up charges.
Egypt is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.