Non-union journalists forgotten in Egypt’s prisons

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After three years of silence, hoping to get her detained husband out but to no avail, Asmaa Mohamed, the wife of the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Saeed, spoke about his suffering in his cell and the media’s discard of him and his case. Asmaa said on Facebook that her husband has been imprisoned for three years, but very few colleagues have paid attention to his situation, although he himself helped his colleagues, whether with psychological, professional or financial support. “Three years on, and [only] a few asked about him, showed solidarity with him, or wrote about him when he was arrested.”

According to her post, what saddens Asmaa is that many of his colleagues were arrested before he was and he stood in solidarity with them and stood by them, but when he was arrested, no one was in solidarity with him, not even by phone.  “For three years, Mohamed has been in prison though no one mentions him, nor is his name written in a human rights report.” Saeed has not been put on the list of detained journalists, and nobody advocates for him. Under his profession and work, Saeed is an Egyptian journalist, though he doesn’t have membership of trade union entities.

The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate does not accept the membership of journalists working on websites or satellite channels. It is a condition that they are registered in one of the print newspapers. As a result, many journalists are not members of the Syndicate of Journalists, nor do they enjoy any protection. Since May 31, 2018, Saeed has been detained and was held in State Security for 45 days (enforced disappearance), after which he appeared in the Supreme State Security Prosecution pending Case No. 441 of 2018. His pretrial detention continued for two consecutive years (the legal period and the maximum pretrial detention in Egyptian law). He then obtained a release order from the Public Prosecution Office on July 15, 2020, yet he remained imprisoned in the police station. Then he disappeared from the police station on July 24, 2020 and remained forcibly disappeared.

It was later revealed that Saeed was detained in the National Security headquarters in the October region (west of Cairo). On November 18, 2020, he appeared in the Public Prosecution Office connected with Case No. 2727 of 2020. However, he soon obtained a release order, on December 1, 2020, on a bail of EGP 5,000, and he was transferred to the police station in preparation for his release. Despite his family paying for his bail, he was kept in detention in the police station for 45 days, to be brought before the State Security Prosecution for the third time in Case No. 955 of 2020, after he was re-enrolled in a new case for the second time.

Human rights defenders criticise this policy of the Egyptian regime against journalists and opponents so that their pretrial detention lasts as long as possible, as the authority often does with its opponents. The case of Saeed, a journalist who worked for Freedom and Justice (Islamic), Al-Dustour (left), and Al-Shorouk (private), is similar to the conditions of many journalists who do not belong to press groups, political currents or professional unions that defend them. Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office, the authorities have suppressed independent journalism, arbitrarily blocked hundreds of websites, raided and closed at least nine media platforms, and arbitrarily arrested dozens of journalists.

According to Amnesty International, 36 journalists were documented as detained solely for practicing their journalistic work or for expressing their opinions through their personal platforms on social media. The numbers differ between human rights organisations concerned with freedom of the press and the media, according to whom they count as media workers (journalists) or not. According to Reporters Without Borders’ latest classification, there are more than 30 Egyptian journalists in prisons, while Egypt is one of the largest prisons for journalists in the region and the world.

The latest report issued by the Arab Observatory for Media Freedom said that there are 15 union journalists in prisons. Other journalists have not yet held the Syndicate’s membership, as well as many photographers and media professionals, bringing the total number of those behind bars to 76. The last detained journalist was Gamal al-Gamal, who was arrested on February 23, 2021, upon his arrival at Cairo Airport from Istanbul. Since that date, he was subjected to illegal detention in an unknown destination before he appeared five days later in the State Security Prosecution, for interrogation in Case No. 977 of 2017, Invoking State Security, and his pretrial detention.