In more than a hundred years of Egyptian press history, there has never been a court verdict ordering the imprisonment of the syndicate’s president.
Following unprecedented assaults on press freedom and laws on one hand, and escalating protests by journalists on the other, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi turned a blind eye to the problems plaguing Egypt’s press.
The president, who previously apologised to lawyers for police brutality; who vowed that activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, killed by police, would be served justice; who even expressed anger towards protests against the Red Sea islands deal, has refrained from addressing violations against press freedom.
Al-Sisi has remained quiet and vague when asked about the situation of press freedom in Egypt and the detention of journalists, with the exception of the Al-Jazeera case which brought on an international headache.
On Saturday, coinciding with the president’s birthday, an Egyptian court marked one of the worst days for press freedom on record. The Qasr El-Nil Misdemeanours Court ordered a two-year prison sentence and EGP 10,000 bail each for Press Syndicate president Yehia Qalash, secretary general Gamal Abdul Reheem, and head of the Freedoms Committee Khaled El-Balshy.
“Our imprisonment verdict is the least we could pay for freedom. I welcome the verdict and say that I am ready to pay much more because we have not committed a crime or are in need of justifying ourselves to the public,” Qalash told the local news website Al-Bedaiah.
The trio, which did not attend Saturday’s session, were charged with sheltering wanted suspects in the syndicate, while the two suspects in question have been released from detention.
Journalists were banned from covering the session held at Abdeen court in downtown Cairo. The verdict was criticised by freedom and human rights advocates and the charges were considered to be ridiculous.
The defendants were accused of allowing journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud El-Saqqa to hide inside the syndicate amid a security pursuit of the two, which ended in an unprecedented act on 1 May, when security forces stormed the syndicate and arrested the two journalists.
At the same time, syndicate leaders were questioned about allowing the two to shelter at reputable press institutions, as the police and prosecution stood together to justify the manner in which the arrests were conducted.
Ironically, Badr and El-Saqqa were released later on. “Today’s verdict seems much politicised, far from law enforcement,” Badr commented Saturday, as a journalists gathering began at the syndicate.
Although the court’s verdict is still subject to appeal, it raises concerns regarding the future of the press in a security environment tightening its grip every day.
While journalists have been able to occasionally rebel to demand their rights, their collective voice is likely to dwindle in strength given the unprecedented infiltration of security into their safe space.
Yet, journalists like El-Balshy insist that the cause for press freedom has not died. As soon as the verdict was issued, El-Balshy said: “The verdict should not distract journalists from other major causes: social and economic rights, the battle for a unified media law, and the status of detained journalists.”
He added: “We have 28 colleagues paying the price for freedom in prison and this verdict just adds another three to that group.”
According to a lawyer working with the syndicate on the case, who preferred to remain anonymous, the defendants can file an appeal within 10 days, either individually or collectively, the latter being the expected step.
“A new and higher degree court will re-examine the case and decide on whether to keep or cancel the verdict,” the lawyer told Daily News Egypt over the phone on Saturday.
A double-faced case
The trio was accused of allowing Badr and El-Saqqa to hide inside the syndicate amid the security’s pursuit of the two journalists, who were accused of publishing false news and inciting protests in April against the Egyptian-Saudi maritime border agreement, also known as the “Red Sea islands” case.
As a result of their constant targeting by security forces—El-Saqqa had just been released from prison—the two decided to take shelter in the Press Syndicate. Less than 24 hours later, the police—already having cordoned the syndicate—stormed into the building.
None of the Press Syndicate’s penalised members had been present during the incident, which was denied by the Interior Ministry and backed by the prosecution.
Syndicate leaders were initially summoned by prosecution authorities to testify in the case of the police storming into the syndicate. However, they were investigated as suspects on the spot. On 30 May, the prosecution ordered the trio be taken to Qasr El-Nil police station, where they were later released on bail.
The members refused to pay the bail at first, but according to the law, anyone can bail out an individual, and so one of the lawyers took the initiative. The trio were released the same night.
As the case unfolded, members of the syndicate found themselves accused by colleagues, such as the syndicate’s security personnel, of planning and covering up for sheltering the two journalists.
Meanwhile, the second aspect of the case was ignored, although the syndicate filed an official complaint to the general prosecutor regarding the breaking-in incident, pushing forward that the police move was illegal according to the regulations of the syndicate.
“But no progress has been made regarding that complaint,” the lawyer said.
‘House of freedoms’ hit severely
The Press Syndicate had gained a reputation for being the “house of freedoms” as it has historically opened its doors to all citizens, not just journalists.
Families of political detainees have hosted dozens of conferences and rallies at the syndicate; state employees have protested against the controversial Civil Service Law at the syndicate; students, workers, and different social factions have taken their demands to the stairs of the syndicate, in addition to wide protests against the Red Sea islands deal on 15 April that erupted at the syndicate.
On 1 May, police forces stormed the syndicate in an unprecedented incident and arrested the two journalists, on grounds that the prosecution had issued warrants for their arrest.
According to journalist Khaled Daoud, there were no legal grounds for the trial of the prominent syndicate members, who were only working to fulfil their roles as protectors of Egypt’s journalists.
“Qalash didn’t even have time to act when Badr and Al-Saqqa decided to take shelter at the syndicate, as they were arrested less than 24 hours after entering the building,” Daoud explained.
Moreover, Daoud referred to the case of journalist Abdul Gelil El-Sharnooby during the time of former president Hosni Mubarak, who took shelter from arrest in the syndicate, under the presidency of Makram Mohamed Ahmed.
El-Sharnooby was the editor-in-chief of the website Ikhwan Online, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood outlet. Brotherhood members, who represented most of the political opposition at the time, were constantly under the security’s watch and pursuit.
“[The event took place] during local municipality elections, and the website’s coverage of violations surely upset the Interior Ministry,” El-Sharnooby recalled in an article published by state-owned Al-Ahram on 3 May, which coincided with the World Press Freedom Day, preceded by the outrageous security break-in.
“The police went to my house. When I found out, I took shelter at our syndicate for a month and a half, after which I left the syndicate with members of the syndicate’s board and a lawyer and we went all the way to State Security prosecution, which released me on a EGP 1,000 bail,” El-Sharnooby testified in his article.
El-Sharnooby further pointed out that although he wasn’t in agreement with the syndicate president, the latter did not allow security forces to storm the syndicate.
In the recent crisis, however, the former president of the syndicate took a stance against the current president, defending the police’s actions and stating that he opposed sheltering the journalists.
Press freedom in the security state: a risky battle
“It is a painful and shocking verdict that will represent a shameful record during Al-Sisi’s era,” commented Dawoud.
For his part, Badr argued that the verdict comes amid a three-year crackdown on the syndicate and journalists.
“If the trio had been acquitted, the Interior Ministry would have been on trial for breaking into the syndicate, and a victory for the Red Sea islands case, which was the trigger of everything,” he added.
Similarly, rights lawyer Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights (ANHRI), said “the verdict on Press Syndicate members turned out harsher than the verdict on those who killed 37 detainees in a deportation car,” in a Saturday post on social media.
On 1 May, journalists rebelled, and thousands of them gathered at their syndicate that night. The next morning, all headlines spoke of the “black day in the history of the press,” including pro-government publications. Most news websites put up a black badge that proclaimed they were “mourning press freedom”.
The next day, a counter-campaign distorting the syndicate began in the media and social media which included journalists and editors-in-chief who had just condemned the syndicate’s storming, who instead began promoting the idea that journalists were not above the law.
Furthermore, five of the syndicate’s board members took a stance against the syndicate’s president and the two other members.
It is therefore not only the verdict that raises concerns on the future of the ongoing battle between supporters of press freedom and the security state, but also the degree of security interference that threatens the syndicate’s freedom.
In the meantime, journalists believing in the defence of their rights discussed on Saturday further escalation plans, including a general conference, strikes, and protests.