“It is easier to be a journalist in Syria than in Egypt”

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The number of reports of arrests, harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists in Egypt, as well as, violent attacks, has increased considerably in recent months. Therefore some could argue that media has become one of the main targets of the Egyptian government.

“The latest salvo in a propaganda campaign by the state-run and pro-military news media” in Egypt is a leaked video showing the arrest of two journalists in December 2013, reports The New York Times concluding that “the goal is to paint the arrested journalists as part of a terrorist conspiracy”. Both journalists shown in the video are established correspondents who were working for the English language affiliate of Al Jazeera.

Peter Greste, is one of Al-Jazeera journalists detained on suspicion of broadcasting false news in the service of the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. He sent a letter from prison asking “how you do accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved. (…) The state will not tolerate hearing from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other critical voices. The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government.”

Many professional associations and media outlets such as CNN, BBC, Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) and others, have condemned the arrests and called the Egyptian government to put an end to their “arbitrary imprisonment” of journalists that are seen as spies or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Egyptians see a journalist as a traitor, someone who has an agenda and plot to destroy the country. The situation has deteriorated to the point that walking in the street with a camera is one of the most dangerous things”, explains Sergi Cabeza, a Spanish freelance journalist who has covered the Egyptian revolution since its beginning, during an interview.

Journalists working in Cairo denounce the hostility and violent attacks they suffer not only from the security forces, but increasingly from civilians. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, correspondent for Democracy Now in Egypt, tells the story of an Italian journalist friend who was “surrounded by an angry mob that set upon him with fists and sticks after a man began screaming that he was a member of Al Jazeera”.

Cabeza says, “it is easier to work as a journalist in Syria than in Egypt, at least it was before journalists faced to be kidnap.” He explains, “in Syria, the threat is a bomb, but you can walk in the street with a camera and you can interview anyone without being attacked. However, in Egypt you face huge hostility from the society.”

The government and its supporters say foreign media are distorting the situation in Egypt, which they argue is on the path to democracy. The Egyptian authorities have always sent the message that they seek a broad consensus, hearing and representing all the voices of society, in particular since they deposed Mohamed Morsi from the presidency last summer.

But the reports from Egypt claim that even tourists who take a picture of the Nile can be taken to the local police station because someone has confused them with journalists and reported them to the Egyptian authorities.

These incidents are just some among many that journalists in Cairo can tell. Kouddous says that these acts against media professionals “are direct result of a state-sponsored vilification campaign against journalists in general, and Al Jazeera in particulars.”

With the new anti-terrorist law, journalists are now prohibited from having or disseminating Muslim Brotherhood publications or recordings and face a possible five-year jail sentence if they violate the ban. “This prohibition and the arbitrary arrests of media personnel constitute grave threats to freedom of information in Egypt,” affirms Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Media professionals asked the Egyptian Minister of Information if interviewing a member of the Muslim Brotherhood would be considered a crime but they have not received a clear answer, although some examples incline the scale to an affirmative answer. A Dutch Journalist fled Egypt after she was accused of “fabricating news” and being member of a terrorist plot, reports The Guardian. She states that she was targeted because of meeting Aljazeera journalists in Cairo.

Where the country is heading is not very optimistic. Cairo Institute for Human Rights reports that during the referendum coverage in January the Egyptian media “have stigmatised those who hold opinions that differ from their own” and “deliberately abandoned standards of diversity and balance, choosing instead to wholeheartedly support and leaving no space for opposition or ambivalent voices.”

The Egyptian regime has silenced those voices that are critical and dissident and allowed only those that support its actions. These practices towards media and journalists remind of the ones used in another conflicts such as Yugoslavia, where divisions in society aggravated and moderate and minority voices were excluded. Cabeza defines that the current situation is seen by the Egyptian regime as a picture in black and white, “either you are with us or you are against us.”

Article published on Media Diversity Institute

Egyptian regime accused of crimes against humanity at The Hague

Middle EAst

Protest in EgyptMore than 3,000 km away from Tahrir Square, a testimony  from a witness of a protest in Cairo was being read out. “I saw the bulldozer run over 20 or 30 people. I was shouting and screaming telling the police to stop. The bulldozer did not stop (…) The policemen were shooting into a crowd of hundreds of people. We all started running away in a massive panic. I saw many people  getting injured. I saw many people  getting shot at this time”.

This is an extract from one of the testimonies that a group of lawyers have submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as evidences to accuse the Egyptian regime of crimes against humanity.

Tayab Ali, who is one of the lawyers that leads the case, explained during a press conference in London that they accuse the military regime of “murder, unlawful imprisonment, torture, persecution against an identifiable group and enforced dsappearece of persons”.

In total, they have verified 1.120 people killed since the military coup on 3rd July 2013 but they are in the process of investigating more killings so it is expected a higher number.

The international team of lawyers called for the ICC to investigate allegations of widespread and systematic acts against civilians. “If the state does nothing, then the ICC will exercise its jurisdition to show that there is not a gap that perpetrators can slip out of. Impunity will not rein”, said the lawyer Rodney Dixon.

The complaint presented to the ICC identifies individuals from the Egyptian regime accused of these acts, but their names have not been realised to the public.

It is unclear how far they will be able to go with this accusation as Egypt does not recognise ICC jurisdiction.  The team stated that the ICC can act if it receives a declaration from the government. They state that Morsi government  remains the lawful and democratically elected government of Egypt and they have issued that declaration to permit ICC to investigate.

The lawyers also stated that all different parties involved could be investigated. “It is not limited to a particular group. It is for the prosecutor to decide who  will investigate and it is posible that the jurisdiction could extend before the start of the coup”, stated Dixon.

While back in Egypt, the gap within the Egyptian society keeps widening. Some collect firms for General Abdulfattah al-Sisi to run for presidency while others call for the restablishment of Mohammed Morsi as a President, who in a few weeks will go on trial.

‘Another night on Earth’ – a film about Egypt through conversations in taxis

Middle EAst

One of the things that characterises Cairo is its chaotic traffic and the constant noise of taxis’ horns as they try to snake through the streets. The taxis and Cairo are exactly where the film ‘Another Night on Earth’ takes place.

A taxi, a driver and passenger are the three main elements of this film that tells the story of ordinary Egyptians debating and arguing about the present and future of the country since the Revolution.  An uprising, that continues more alive than ever after the last protests that let the army to take over, ousts the President, Mohammed Morsi, and dissolves the Parliament.

The film captures the opinions of the passengers through conversations in taxis.  The director of the film, David Muñoz, chose this way to tell the story because “Egyptians spend so much time in taxis due to traffic jams and the taxis are private spaces that allow people to talk calmly with strangers”.

Despite the film being shot from May to September 2011, the same dialogues can be heard today in the streets of Egypt. One of the passengers stated, “If there is a new president and he makes a new constitution, and we are not convinced, we will carry on the protests. If there is no change, we will force him to resign”.

Another passenger asked, “Where is the revolution? This is not a revolution. Revolution means change at all levels and we are still the way we were at the start, or worse”.

Muñoz affirms, “there is a clear need for change embedded in the people that is irreversible. Everything that I recorded in 2011, I see  today. The problems they had in 2011, they still have in 2013”.

He shot 70 journeys where all kinds of people got into the taxis, including big families, women, children and men. They all talked about different topics, ranging from politics to social problems such as unemployment, education and health.

During one of the journeys, the taxi driver argues with two Muslim women about the protests in Tahrir Square.  While the driver criticised the impatience of the protesters that cannot wait for results, the women defended them – “Nobody wants to wait now, they want it all now, because of the lies and deception they have seen since birth. They never do what they say”.

Religion is also addressed in the film. A woman and a driver discussed the possibility of an Islamist government, forcing women to wear the hijab on the streets. The passenger highlights the right to choose and he thinks of his daughter as an example. “She is the one who has to decide if she wants to wear it or not. The normal thing is for everyone to make up their own minds”.

The 52- minute documentary focusses on the problems of ordinary Egyptians and stays away from the mainstream media discourse. Muñoz found himself fascinated by the Egyptian people “who are very extrovert and brave, who do not close their mouths, and who say what they think without second thoughts or fears which we have assimilated in the West”.

Article published on yourmiddleeast.com

Sexual harassment: a constant in Egyptian women’s life

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Image“Their hands were all over my body and up and under my destroyed clothes. Again, my pants and underwear were pulled down violently and several men, at the same time, raped me with their fingers”. This is part of a testimony of a victim that was raped during the protests in Tahrir Square in June 2012. It is one of more than 20 stories that Egyptian human rights organisations have compiled from victims and witnesses from 2011 to 2013.

The testimonies tell a similar story each time: hundreds of men surrounding the victim and tearing-off clothes, veils and underwear to touch her violently and, in the worst cases, to rape her with their fingers and even sharp objects.

Sexual harassment, either verbal or physical, has become rife in Egypt, in particular, in the heart of the Cairo protests – Tahrir Square. Over 100 cases of sexual assault were reported during the last demonstrations that let the army take over and depose the president, Muhammad Morsi.

These numbers highlight the failure of the government and political institutions to address violence against women in Egypt. “No one had ever been accountable for what happens in Tahrir Square or during demonstrations. For example, in January 2013, cases were documented but there was no reaction from the government, no investigations were opened. People know that whatever happens in the square, there will never be any accountability for it”, explains Masa Amir, a researcher at Nazra Feminist Studies in Cairo.

Sexual harassment is an epidemic in the country, as is reflected in a UN Women study that reported that 99.3% of women in Egypt have suffered one form of sexual harassment or another; the majority saying to have been touched.

Amir denounces the inaction of the political institutions that “rather to address the issue, they use it as a political tool against the opposition”. She gives the example of Essam Al-Haddad, Assistant to the former President on Foreign Relations and International Cooperation, who drew a line between the two demonstrations on 29th June to conclude that the assaults indicate that the “crowds in Tahrir are out of control”.

The ones who are addressing the issue in Egypt are mainly individuals and civil societies who have launched grassroots initiatives to support women and raise awareness of violence against women.

For example the ‘HarassMap’ is an online initiative for victims and witnesses all over Egypt to anonymously share their experiences of harassment, and to report it through mobile phones and social media. The map collects all reports with information that tells the user what kind of harassment was and where it happened.

There is also the initiative of the Tahrir Bodyguards – volunteers that can be recognised by their yellow helmets and neon vests during the protests. They try to prevent sexual harassment while women are in the streets protesting.

A cartoon has also been created. It is Superrmakh – an Egyptian superhero, inspired by Superman cartoons, who helps women and girls stop their harassers.

With this initiative, Ahmed Makhloufto, the creator of Supermakh, wanted to break a taboo within Egyptian society by talking openly about sexual harassment and highlighting the pretexts and other factors that allow for it to continue.

The figures provided on sexual harassment in Egypt may be even higher as many cases remain unreported. The UN Women’s report stated that only 0.3 of women who were harassed contacted the police.

In Egypt, denouncing the harasser is a challenge for the victim as the police tend to convince the women not to pursue it further. “The police usually say it is ok, nothing really happened. Why do you want to get this man into trouble? And even if they document what happened, it is not treated urgently. The survivors often think that if they go to the police, they will be put under a lot of stress, no investigation will take place and nothing will come out of it”, confirms Amir.

The victims face a culture of impunity, denial and inaction regarding sexual harassment in a country where there is also a social wall to overcome. “The victims need a very supportive family and to be strong enough to speak out because our society tends to blame the girls for being harassed. They cannot tell their father or brother because she will be blamed. They usually say: you may have done something wrong or worn something that was not decent. And if they don’t blame her, they tell her not to talk about it because it will bring shame and disgrace to the family”, explains Nada Nashat from Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (ECWRA).

Despite all the obstacles, Nashat affirms that the number of women who speak out and report the harassment has increased. Another testimony of a victim of sexual harassment concluded, “we will not be frightened; we will not hide in our homes”.

Remains of the repression in Egypt, an obstacle for press freedom

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Cairo has become one of the ten most dangerous places to work as a journalist. 75 journalists have been physically attacked and 81 imprisoned since February 2010, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

Mohamed El Sayed, assistant editor for the Egyptian and Sudanese affairs newspaper Al Hayat, was one of the journalists to face the dangers of being in the epicenter of the uprising in the Egyptian capital in January 2011. “We were chased by the regime, police, and military agents especially the first days of February 2011. I was detained for 17 hours with a couple of journalists in a school at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution”, explained Mohamed.

Some journalists were hounded, harassed, and imprisoned without evidence during the first days of the uprising. However, a year after the first protests in Tahrir Square, the situation has not changed much.

“I went back to Cairo for a week on the first anniversary of the uprising and the situation was the same. We were surrounded by military and police agents and they tried to harass journalists and activists”, affirmed Mohamed.

These repressive methods have contributed to Egypt’s fall in the Press Freedom Index 2011-2012 released by RWB. Egypt fell from 127th to 166th.

Remains of the regime

The departure of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has not meant the fall of the entire infrastructure that supported the regime. Some critics state that the military is using the same old methods of censorship and intimidation of Mubarak’s regime.

The Supreme Council Army Forces (SCAF), which replaced the rais and will hold power until a new president is elected, has taken over the state media.

A few months after the revolution, people demanded the departure of those who were part of Mubarak’s regime in the public media. “The SCAF changed them but replaced them with military correspondents. 4 out of 7 state media chief editors were military correspondents who had long careers in the institution,” explained Mohammed.

However, not only journalists are being targeted, but also netizens who use internet to give their opinion. Both groups have been prosecuted before military tribunals for “insulting the army” or “spreading harmful information”. Egypt’s Penal Code and press law establishes prison and fines not less than 5000 Egyptian pounds (£530) if they are found guilty.

Some analysts believe that these terms are vague and they are used as a tool to prevent public criticism of the government and the military. “Now, there is to some extent press freedom, more than Mubarak’s period, but still restricted to critics to the SCAF”, affirmed Dr Mishrif, from King’s College London.

Maikel Nabil, an activist who had a blog about the military, suffered the consequences of criticizing the army. “He spent 10 months in prison and was condemned for two years. He was pardoned at the end of January after huge pressure from the political factions in Egypt,” explained Ahmed Kazi, journalist and activist.

The post that caused his prosecution can be found in Nabil’s blog. He wrote on March 2011, “the army did not stand by the people’s side, not even once during this revolution and that the army’s conduct was deceptive all the time and that it was protecting its own interests”.

A new agora

Even though, journalists and citizens know the consequences if they cross the red lines, they have not silenced them.

“Everyone in Egypt is talking about politics and the situation of Egypt. People express their concerns and fears about how the SCAF handles things in the country. Regardless of what the regime is doing people are participating actively”, affirmed Ahmed.

Egyptians have engaged in political debates that take place not only in the streets, cafes, and universities, but also on Facebook and Twitter. The social networks were important channels to spread the revolution and gather people in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the uprising, but also now after a year of the revolt.

“It has become a good channel for activists to communicate and to spread what happens in any inch of the country. The social media is playing a vital role in keeping the revolution going on”, stated Ahmed.

The social network has, therefore, become an important tool for communication and also a paramount source of information. For Mohammed, “twitter is at the moment the most credible source and keeps you updated all the time”.

The military has also seen the useful side of the social network. “They have a Facebook page that is used as the only channel of communication between the army and the people”, affirmed Ahmed.

The popularity of the social network in Egypt has situated the country with the highest number of Facebook users in the Arab world. Facebook had over 4 million Egyptian users in November 2010, now has over 9 million.

Social networks have converted into a new agora where to discuss and inform about what happens in the country, where the Egyptians keep demanding the reform of state media and the fall of prison and fine for criticizing the army.

Published in Mernet Newsletter April 2012