Why are the Egyptian authorities persecuting Shawkan?

Shawkan, an Egyptian photojournalist, will not be able to attend today’s UNESCO award ceremony to personally receive the 2018 Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize. He has been held for nearly five years and is now facing the death penalty. Why do the Egyptian authorities insist on persecuting him?

Mahmoud Abou Zeid, an Egyptian photojournalist also known as Shawkan, has been detained ever since 14 August 2013, when he was arrested while covering the use of deadly force to disperse a demonstration in Rabaa Square, in the outskirts of Cairo. He was arrested for being an unwanted observer.

When UNESCO announced last week that Shawkan was to be awarded this year’s prize, for which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) supported him as a candidate, the Egyptian authorities reacted with irritation, deploring the decision to give the prize to a man accused of “murder and vandalism.”

“Nearly five years in prison is five years too much,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Shawkan must not continue to pay for the media blackout that the Egyptian authorities decided to impose. The UN has sent them a clear message by giving this prestigious award to Shawkan – that his detention is arbitrary. He must be freed at once. Shawkan has gone from the shadows to the light. Each additional day he spends in prison will darken the record of President Sisi’s repressive and autocratic regime even more.”

Rabaa Square’s unwanted reporters

All independent journalists were clearly unwanted when the Egyptian authorities set about dispersing the Rabaa Square sit-in by supporters of the newly-deposed Muslim Brotherhood government in August 2013. The media that supported the military and new regime contented themselves with reporting the official version, namely that peaceful protesters had nothing to fear.

The Egyptian authorities subsequently admitted that hundreds of civilians were killed. The police had fired on unarmed demonstrators. According to Human Rights Watch, 817 people were killed in the course of clearing Rabaa Square. Three journalists were killed that day and many others, both professional and non-professional, were arrested.

According to the information gathered by RSF, Shawkan went to Rabaa Square at dawn, at the request of Demotix, the British photo agency for which he was working on a freelance basis. He went together with the French freelance artist-photographer Louis Jammes (see Jammes’ letter below). When the security forces began their assault, Shawkan and Jammes moved over to their side in order not to be in the line of fire, and continued taking photos.

Michael Giglio, a US reporter then working for The Daily Beast, was also there. He also positioned himself near the security forces and used his phone to take photos. Like Shawkan and Jammes, he continued to take photos for a while within the view of the security forces and recalls how all three of them were suddenly arrested without understanding why.

“They knew we were journalists,” Giglio said. “They almost seemed happier when I told them (...) They took everything, phone, laptop, when they beat me up.”

Abdullah al Shami, an Egyptian journalist working for Al Jazeera who was arrested in Rabaa Square that day, said: “All journalists who were not covering the government’s narrative were a target. They didn’t want a different narrative.”

Least problematic target

Jammes and Giglio were released the same day but Shawkan, as an Egyptian, did not receive the same treatment. No major international media outlet demanded his release. Demotix his London-based photo agency, sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office five months later, on 24 January 2014 (see below), confirming that he had been working on assignment for the agency that day. But the letter had no effect. This small photo agency, which no longer exists, clearly did not have enough weight.

Shami, the Al Jazeera journalist, went on hunger strike in protest against his continuing detention. Now living in exile, Shami thinks it was the hunger strike that got him released in 2014, when the regime was still working to establish its legitimacy in the international community’s eyes. Shawkan did not enjoy the same media and political impact abroad.

Independent, therefore suspect

If journalists do not criticize the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian authorities suspect them of being sympathetic or even complicit. Egyptian journalists have no choice but to toe the official line. Any coverage that violates this principle is seen as an act of rebellion.

This is also partly why Shawkan is still in prison five years after his arrested. Like his 700 or so co-defendants, he is accused of colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the regime regards as a terrorist organization. Shawkan posted comments on Facebook in the summer of 2013 that showed he completely disagreed with the Muslim Brotherhood, but this has clearly never been taken into account.

Although a talented photographer, Shawkan was just 25 was little known at the time of his arrest. Egypt’s journalistic community learned about his arrest too late, and was not able to organize protests quickly enough to prevent him from being included in this mass trial, in which the defendants are charged with murder and vandalism.

Since then, there have been repeated, forceful demands for his release in both Egypt and abroad. NGOs such as RSF and Amnesty International have campaigned for his release. RSF has written to the Egyptian authorities about him, without so far getting any response. Last month, RSF mobilized more international support for Shawkan by means for its #MyPicForShawkan campaign.

Who is Shawkan?

“Shawkan” is the pseudonym of Mahmoud Abou Zeid, an Egyptian photography enthusiast who obtained a diploma in photography from a school operated by the Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar. His photos of the 2011 revolutions were widely hailed when they were exhibited at the school. He freelanced for the British photo agency Demotix, which sold his photos to such leading international media outlets as Time Magazine and Die Zeit.

Aged 25 when arrested on 14 August 2013, he has been held ever since. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention regards his detention as arbitrary. Since March 2018, he has been facing the death penalty, which prosecutors requested for him and all of the other 700 or so fellow defendants with whom he is being tried. His family has described their situation to RSF as a “living nightmare.” His brother Mohamed told RSF: “Shawkan’s psychological state has affected his physical condition. He is suffering from anaemia and has had to be taken from prison to hospital several times. What gets us down is that on several occasions we expected him to be freed only to be disappointed. We are lacking in good spirits. He was the one who used to make us laugh.”

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Updated on 02.05.2018