The Unknown Story of Egypt: Dead Journalists Tell No Tales

A record number of reporters have died since the Arab Spring, and more are behind bars.

Photojournalists held up placards in front of the Shura Council in Cairo on March 19, 2013, in protest of what they said was harassment by authorities for covering the news.

(Photo: Khaled Desouki/Egyptian Photo Journalistic Society/Pool/Reuters)

Jan 24, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

Millions of Egyptians went to the polls last week and supported a constitution sponsored by a military government in a referendum that was covered by a largely compliant national press—even as seven journalists languished in jails across the country for alleged crimes against that same government. One could be forgiven for thinking reporters working in Egypt might be in a tight spot.

When it comes to press freedoms, Egypt has joined the ranks of the world’s most dangerous and decrepit countries—Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Somalia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The New York City–based group ranked Egypt as the world’s second-most-dangerous country for reporters in 2013, surpassed only by Syria. The bleak top-tier standing marked the first time in more than 20 years that Egypt appeared on the list.

“There has been an unprecedented wave of attacks in a country whose ruler is claiming to be restoring democracy,” said Sherif Mansour, an analyst who studies Egypt for CPJ. “It casts a very dark shadow over the viability of information, commentary, and overall public freedoms.”

Nine of the ten journalists killed in Egypt since 1992 have died in the last two years of unrest. No one has been charged in any of the deaths.

The most recent detentions targeted three experienced Al Jazeera English journalists whose offices in a Cairo Marriott hotel room were raided in December. (Disclosure: This reporter occasionally works for an Al Jazeera English program.)

Egyptian authorities have been holding Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed in jail without access to lawyers, sufficient medical care, or contact with their families.

The three journalists were accused of having “illegal meetings” with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which the military government labeled a “terrorist organization” almost immediately after it deposed a Brotherhood-led government last July. As if to underscore the enmity between the government and Al Jazeera, which has been broadly sympathetic to the Brotherhood, police last week briefly detained an Associated Press television team, believing it to be working for Al Jazeera.

The parents of Greste, who is Australian and won a Peabody Award for his work in Somalia, spoke out last week from Brisbane, where they called the Egyptian government’s claims “preposterous” and called for their son’s immediate release. Greste’s mother said the ordeal had been “shattering to the whole family.” Greste’s colleague, Fadel Fahmy, has a shoulder injury that pre-dates his capture and has gone for weeks without proper medical attention.

Egypt was a dangerous place to work even before Morsi was unseated, but the pace of abuses, detentions and even deaths has picked up in the last six months. Two journalists were killed during the 11 months of Morsi’s reign, while six have died since last July, or roughly one per month. Three of them died on one brutal day in mid-August, when Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s troops clashed with demonstrators who had taken to the streets in Cairo to protest Morsi’s ouster.

While the scope of the violence has increased recently, many also blame Morsi for setting a tone of deep polarization, pitting Egyptians against one another and often placing journalists in the crosshairs.

“During Morsi's tenure, we saw all sorts of intimidation tactics employed by his government or directly through his allies,” said Mansour, “It created a deep polarization in the media and outside between those who support the Muslim Brotherhood and those who oppose it, and now we are seeing the results of that polarization.”

In addition to the six journalists killed since Morsi was deposed in July, 45 have been assaulted and 11 news outlets have been raided, according to the CPJ’s figures. The new government has detained 44 more “without charge in pretrial procedures, which, at times, have gone on for months,” wrote the CPJ in a recent report.

The government has wasted no time establishing—both in practice and in the language of the new constitution, approved last week—that national security interests trump all. Anyone can be detained or jailed for vaguely worded infringements such as “dishonoring individuals.” It’s not just journalists either. A number of prominent academics have fallen victim to the regime’s crackdowns on free speech and dissent.

“It’s part of a larger phenomenon of decreased space for reporting and dissent,” said Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at the University of Oklahoma. “This is somewhat similar to the Mubarak regime, but it displays the sheer incompetence of the government. They’re doing themselves more harm than good.”

In the repression, Shehata points out, are signs of who is wielding the real power in Egypt these days. The prime minister, finance minister, and foreign minister have all had deep exposure to the West, and many top officials have either lived or studied in Europe and the United States.

“These are people who know better,” he says. “What that tells us is that they’re not making any of the real decisions—it’s the police, the intelligence officers, the military. And they’re making bad decisions.”

The deterioration in Egypt has prompted journalists around the world to get involved. Scores of reporters from prominent outlets, including Christiane Amanpour of CNN and editors at The New York Times, signed a petition calling for the release of the Al Jazeera journalists. The government dismissed the petition, justifying the detentions in the name of “national security and the highest interests of the country.”

“It’s a repressive place; I wouldn’t want to be a journalist right now,” said Joshua Stacher, a political scientist and an Egypt expert at Kent State University.

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