News

November 23, 2016

Two-year jail terms for three leaders of journalists union

Head of Syndicate Yahia Qalash in early May - MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the government’s continuing harassment of Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate, three of whose leaders were given two-year jail sentences on 19 November for allegedly harbouring two journalists at its headquarters last May who were wanted by the authorities.

The three are Yahya Qalash, the Syndicate’s president, Gamal Abd El-Raheem, its secretary-general, and Khaled El-Balshy, the head of its freedoms committee, who is also the editor of the newspaper Al Bedaiah.


They did not attend the hearing at which they were sentenced but they decided to appeal. The court has allowed them to stay out of jail pending the outcome of the appeal on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (530 euros). The first appeal hearing has been scheduled for 25 December.


“The situation of journalists in Egypt is not improving,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “These unprecedented prison sentences for key figures in the Journalists Syndicate suggest an ever darker future for the media in this country. We call on the authorities to free all journalists who are being held just for doing their job.”


The three union leaders were 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 who were arrested when police stormed it on 1 May.


Accused of 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 in April, Saqqa and Badr were released provisionally in August and September respectively.


Another hearing was held on 19 November in the case with more than 700 defendants who were arrested then police dispersed a mass sit-in in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in August 2013.


They include Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a photojournalist also known as Shawkan, whose lawyers reiterated a request for his release on medical grounds because he has hepatitis C. The next hearing is scheduled for 10 December. On 21 October, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said it regarded Abou Zeid’s detention as arbitrary and called for his immediate release.


On 20 November, a judge ordered the provisional release of Ismail Alexandrani – a journalist specializing in the Sinai and one of the nominees for this year’s RSF Press Freedom Prize – who has been held since November 2015 on charges of spreading false information and being a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.


However, Alexandrani’s release was blocked when a prosecutor filed an appeal against the release order and the court accepted the appeal. His detention has been extended for another 45 days.


Two journalists pardoned


Two journalists were among the 82 detainees who were given a presidential pardon on 17 November. One is Islam al-Behairy, a presenter on Al-Kahera wal Nas, a privately-owned TV channel, who was arrested in December 2015 and was given a one-year sentence on a blasphemy charge.


The other is Mohamed Ali Salah, a photographer for the opposition news website El-Shaab el-Jadeed, who was arrested while covering a student demonstration at Al-Azhar University, in the east Cairo district of Nasr City, in December 2013. He was sentenced to three years in prison on various charges including spreading false information and participating in an illegal demonstration.


Egypt is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.