President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi
Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Paris, 22 February 2016
Dear President Sisi,
Respect for the fundamental freedoms of Egyptian citizens and foreign residents has unfortunately declined since you became Egypt’s president in 2014. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) would like to draw your attention to the very disturbing situation of Egypt’s journalists, who are only too often persecuted on national security grounds.
In 2015, Egypt became one the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. At least 24 journalists and bloggers are currently imprisoned in connection with their reporting. In most cases, their only “error” was to have covered demonstrations or protests or to have spoken with members of the Muslim Brotherhood (which you have declared to be a “terrorist organization”) in the course of their reporting.
These journalists, who RSF defends, are held on trumped-up charges unrelated to press offences, charges such as membership of a terrorist organization, participating in an illegal demonstration, spreading false information or disturbing public order. Many of them have been subjected to unjust trials that violate Egypt’s 2014 constitution and international human rights law, demonstrating the Egyptian justice system’s lack of independence.
Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a freelance journalist also known as “Shawkan,” is one of the victims of this system of arbitrary detention. After being arrested while covering a demonstration in support of deposed President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square for the Demotix and Corbis photo agencies on 14 August 2013, he spent more than two years in prison without seeing a judge and without being formally charged. His pre-trial detention, one of the longest ever in Egypt, according to his lawyers, violated Egyptian law (article 143 of the code of criminal procedure).
He finally began being tried on 12 December 2015 along with more than 700 other defendants, including Muslim Brotherhood members. The charges against him include murder, attempted murder and membership of a banned organization, and he is facing life imprisonment. Mentally exhausted, suffering the effects of days spent in solitary confinement, he is also ill with hepatitis C.
Other journalists are also facing long jail sentences. They included six journalists who were originally given life sentences in April 2015 in the so-called “Rabaa Al Adawiya operations room” case. They were convicted of spreading “false news,” inciting violence and chaos, and being part of a supposed “operations room” that allegedly orchestrated attacks on the government during the August 2013 demonstrations in Rabaa Al Adawiya Square.
As the Court of Cassation overturned their convictions in December 2015, a new trial was scheduled to begin on 8 February. However, as some of the defendants, including Abdallah Al Fakhrany and Samhi Mostafa, were unable to appear in court, the session has been postponed until 1 March.
These journalists are being held in appalling conditions. Some are being tortured and denied medical treatment. They include Omar Abdel Maksud, a photographer for the Masr Al-Arabia news website, who has a heart condition. Arrested on 14 February 2014, released and then rearrested in April 2014, he is accused of attacking and setting fire to cars belonging to your presidential campaign.
Last September, you said your country enjoys unprecedented freedom of expression but the reality is completely different. Working as a journalist in Egypt has become as dangerous as openly demonstrating against the regime. The latest anti-terrorism law, adopted in August, directly attacks the media because coverage of bombings and shootings is punishable by a heavy fine if it does not conform to the official version, for example, as regards the death toll.
It is nonetheless your responsibility to guarantee the protection of journalists, so that they can do their job to provide news and information freely and in complete safety. They should not be subjected to a climate of fear and impunity.
May I remind you that three journalists were killed by the security forces while covering the pro-Morsi demonstration in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square on 14 August 2013. A year later, no investigation had been opened into the deaths of these journalists or the massacre that took place that day, and none of those responsible had been arrested. The same goes for the perpetrators of all the other murders of journalists since January 2011.
It is absolutely crucial that pluralism of news reporting and opinion should be guaranteed in your country. The Egyptian constitution guarantees media freedom, which underpins a democratic system. This is why RSF asks you to release these unjustly detained journalists and to stop persecuting them. Otherwise, Egypt’s prospects for the future will be very dim in the long term.