The three journalists are Yahya Qallash, the Press Syndicate’s former president, Khaled El-Balshy, the former head of its freedoms committee, and Gamal Abdel Raheem, its former secretary-general.
In a decision issued at a hearing on 25 March, a Cairo appeal court upheld their convictions on charges of allowing the union’s headquarters to be used as a refuge last May by two journalists who were wanted by the authorities.
The two-year prison sentences issued at the original trial on 19 November were reduced to one year by the appeal court and were suspended. But the three former union leaders would have to serve the sentences if similar charges are brought against them during the next three years.
“This is a cruel blow to all those who defend media rights in Egypt,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “Although the proceedings against the two ‘fugitive’ journalists were dropped last year, the Press Syndicate’s former president and his two colleagues continue to have criminal convictions, sending an intimidating message to all journalists. Their convictions must be overturned.”
According to RSF’s sources, Qallash, El-Balshy and Abdel Raheem plan to file an appeal against this decision to the Court of Cassation in the next few days.
The most recent appeal court hearing had been postponed several times and finally took place after the Press Syndicate’s elections on 17 March to choose its new leadership. The union’s new president is none other than the editor of the pro-government newspaper Al-Ahram.
In a Facebook post after the hearing, El-Balshy said: “We will continue this fight, regardless of the price that must be paid (...) This is bigger than just a battle of the journalists’ union; it is fight for freedom, democracy and justice in our country, a fight to oppose the censorship of all those who try to speak out.”
The three former union leaders are convicted of harbouring two journalists with the opposition website Yanair, Mahmoud Saqqa and Amr Badr, who staged a sit-in inside the union’s headquarters and were arrested when police stormed it on 1 May 2016.
Charged with spreading false rumours about Egypt’s decision to return two small islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia and with inciting anti-government protests, the two journalists were released a few months later and the charges were subsequently dropped.
Egypt continues to be one of the world’s biggest prisons for media personnel, with a total of 24 journalists currently detained.
The provisional detention of Ismail Alexandrani, a freelance journalist specializing in the Sinai, was extended on 25 March for the fourth time since a criminal court judge ordered his release in November 2016 only to see it blocked by a prosecutor. Accused of spreading false information and belonging to a terrorist group, Alexandrani has been held without trial since November 2015.
Egypt is ranked 159th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.