Blackout: Independent Journalism in Egypt Today, and the Case of Mahmoud Abu Zeid




Credit: AP Photo/Hamada Elrasam

JAMMES AND SHAWKAN were in trouble. A police officer was standing on Jammes’s toes and a line of police trucks had arrived. The officer stared into Jammes’s face for several minutes. He slapped him when he tried to speak. Jammes was advised to keep looking down at his feet, half obscured by the officer’s boots. His friend Shawkan, just behind him, endured the same treatment.

Louis Jammes, a French photographer, and “Shawkan,” the nickname for Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, had arrived early that morning, August 14, 2013, at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in of mostly pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi had been ousted by the military in early July, following huge protests against him. Rabaa square, east Cairo, had become an encampment of at least 80,000 overwhelmingly peaceful protesters calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. The authorities had lost patience with the six-week old sit-in; most people knew that it would soon be cleared and that it was likely to happen at the end of Ramadan.

When Jammes and Shawkan arrived that morning, they watched the camp awaken. There were many families there — men, women, and children. The photographers were shown a new field hospital that had been set up to care for the anticipated casualties of the coming clearance. It was not long afterward that the security forces made their advance into the camp.

Jammes wanted to stay with the sit-in but Shawkan preferred to be behind military lines. “Shawkan was a little afraid of the Brotherhood,” recalls Jammes. “I was really afraid of the military myself but Shawkan trusted them.” Jammes asked Shawkan a couple of times if he was certain it was the right decision; he was sure the armed forces would not allow them to photograph the clearance.

When the security forces began to fire on the sit-in, Jammes and Shawkan crossed behind them. They were perhaps 10 or 20 meters behind the frontline, crouching behind cars, running between armored vehicles and taking photos alongside the military as they pushed forward against the ranks of protesters defending the camp.

“The atmosphere was like we were in a war,” wrote Shawkan in a letter smuggled out of prison and published earlier this year in the Independent: “Bullets, tear gas, fire” — and a mass of police, soldiers, and tanks.

“It’s the worst thing I ever saw, this kind of shooting on people so close,” remembers Jammes. “I have been to war — I was in Sarajevo, Chechnya, Iraq — I never saw shooting so close, directly on people. In war you don’t see the enemy — the enemy is quite far, you shoot but you don’t see him. But at Rabaa they shot people directly at maybe 200–300 meters.” Jammes didn’t see any weapons on the Brotherhood side at Rabaa, although multiple independent reports confirmed that a small number of protesters were armed; eight members of the security forces died that day.

After a couple of hours the military cleared part of the camp. Jammes and Shawkan noticed that the police — Special Forces perhaps — were arresting anyone they could get their hands on, including bystanders. Jammes saw soldiers beating Mike Giglio, a reporter for Newsweek. When Shawkan identified himself to police as a photojournalist he was beaten and arrested. Jammes’s protestations that he was a French photographer were answered with slaps. “So they arrested everybody,” says Jammes, “None of them were fighters.”

Their hands were bound so tightly that the plastic cuffs bit into a nerve in Jammes’s hand, numbing part of it for several months afterwards. Their cameras were confiscated and never returned. The detainees were then loaded onto trucks. Jammes and Shawkan exchanged few words, afraid, as most were to speak. They were taken to the Cairo Stadium complex, and lined up in a sporting arena — the foreigners separated from the Egyptians. The foreigners were asked some questions and after two hours were tossed back into the streets of Cairo. The Egyptians were held.

Hundreds of people died that day in Rabaa. Jammes thinks Shawkan’s decision to stay alongside the military may well have saved their lives. But it also cost Shawkan his freedom. It would be a while before Jammes heard from him again.

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Shawkan, then 26 years old, was working as a freelance journalist for Demotix, a London-based photographic agency. On his Demotix profile Shawkan quotes Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dictum, “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life.”

Shawkan’s profile features 131 stories, amounting to over 2,000 photographs. His first posts for Demotix, taken in April 2010, were street portraits — a homeless man sitting on a curb in Alexandria, a child shoe-shiner. His first full-length story was a 24-image piece on a crunch football match between Cairo rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek.

By 2011 much of his work was focusing on the turbulence of Egypt’s streets. Shawkan’s photos from Tahrir Square on February 11, 2011, capture the giddy joy of the protesters, many holding aloft Egyptian flags, as they celebrated the scarcely believable news that they had toppled President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power. Over the next two and half years he tirelessly documented — mostly for Demotix, but also for Corbis agency — key moments and events of a society in turmoil.

Press freedom had been limited under Mubarak. The state media was a propaganda machine for the regime. It was difficult to set up independent media outlets, although some did exist. Outspoken journalists were sometimes harassed, arrested, or imprisoned. There were red lines that couldn’t be crossed — such as criticizing Mubarak or his family for example, although this taboo was increasingly broken towards the end of his rule —and reporting on the military.

During the period of direct military rule that followed the ousting of Mubarak, journalists and bloggers were tried in military courts as the authorities worked to suppress media freedom.

“The installation of a Muslim Brotherhood government in the summer of 2012 did not result in any improvement in respect for fundamental freedoms,” reports Reporters Without Borders (RWB), who claim that Morsi oversaw a period of “Brotherization” of the media, whereby the Islamist government began to assert its control over the state media. NGOs reported an increase in physical attacks and lawsuits against journalists during Morsi’s yearlong presidency. A widely held perception that Morsi was becoming increasingly authoritarian was a factor fueling protests against him.

Shawkan’s last post for Demotix covered the July 26, 2013, protests in Tahrir Square where, as he wrote on his profile, thousands of people had rallied behind Sisi’s calls to give “the armed forces a mandate to fight terrorism in the country.” More specifically, Sisi was seeking a show of support for his impending clearance of the pro-Morsi demonstration at Rabaa.

Shawkan visited Rabaa on July 4, 2013, the day after Defense Minister (now President) Abdul Fattah al-Sisi ousted Morsi from office. “At the beginning there was no problem for anybody or any photographer to go to Rabaa,” says Jammes. “They were really open with foreigners and even with the Egyptian journalists too.” But as the weeks passed and everybody began to understand that Sisi would clear the square, tensions rose and Shawkan became reluctant to visit Rabaa. “Slowly, step by step, we heard stories about some Egyptian photographers being beaten or robbed of their cameras because they were accused of being spies — it was a kind of paranoia between Egyptians,” says Jammes. Shawkan decided that it was no longer safe for him to be there and didn’t visit the camp for around two weeks.

Jammes continued to visit Rabaa, made contacts and assured Shawkan that they would vouch for his safety in the camp if he returned, which he did on August 14. When the authorities began to clear the camp that day, Shawkan instinctively headed behind the military’s lines.

It was somewhat ironic that, once in custody, the security forces accused Shawkan of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. They said that he had been armed, that he was a terrorist, that he had committed murder. A photograph later emerged of Shawkan, purportedly taken in police custody, looking bruised and battered; he had been systematically beaten, at three hour intervals, over three days of interrogation along with 47 other prisoners. They expected to die. “They were the worst days I lived in my whole life,” Shawkan later wrote.

After three days of interrogation, Shawkan and 47 fellow prisoners were stuffed into a van and left in the sun without water, food, or fresh air. Eventually he was taken to Abu Zaabal jail.

Shawkan’s friends and family have struggled to understand his predicament. Yehia El-Sherbini is close friends with him and has been helping to campaign for his release. “He isn’t with the Muslim Brotherhood and he isn’t with Sisi,” insists El-Sherbini. “He is independent.”

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Independent journalists have become even less tolerated since Morsi was ousted. Under Sisi, major journalistic institutions have rallied behind the security forces, launching a media campaign of vilification against dissenting voices — both Islamist and secular.

“There is the state-owned media, which is not representing the Egyptian people, it is representing the regime — whoever that may be,” claims Abeer Saady, assistant editor of Al-Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper. “The same people who were supporting the Muslim Brotherhood are now supporting the current regime.”

Saady argues that much of the private media represents the interests of the wealthy businessmen who own them and that they are overwhelmingly aligned with authorities’ security crackdown, during which tens of thousands of people have been arrested, political groups banned, human rights organizations raided, and media outlets deemed to be dissentious shut down.

Shaimaa Abulkhair, Middle East and North Africa representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), claims that President Sisi has even told media officials behind closed doors that the role of the media is to support national security. “Their call to the media to follow the lines of the government means that there is no space for independent reporting,” says Abulkhair.

Those who do not adhere to self-censorship are likely to face pressure from the state. Al-Masdar website features political news and is loosely affiliated to the recently banned secular activist group April 6 Movement. “We can’t do most of the work we want to do,” says Ali Asem, director of Al-Masdar. “We can’t attend protests; they have arrested and beaten our journalists.” Last year the authorities passed legislation that Human Rights Watch claim effectively outlaws protest. Many journalists covering protests have since been treated as demonstrators protesting illegally.

Al-Masdar is unable to get permits to work as journalists and their website has been hacked and shut down. They have abandoned their office, fearing that it may be raided. “So now we are illegal,” says Asem.

“The challenges here are not only the imprisonment of journalists; every day we hear about attacks on journalists by officials, by security forces,” says Abulkhair of the CPJ.

Abeer Saady sits next to the empty chair of Ahmed Abdel Gawad — her colleague at Al-Akhbar Al-Youm who was shot and killed at Rabaa on August 14, 2013. Saady had to identify and take charge of the body, an experience that traumatized her. “For a long time afterwards I dreamed of blood,” she says.

At least three journalists were among the hundreds of people killed in Rabaa that day, and at least six journalists have been killed since Morsi was ousted, according to the CPJ. Egypt was the third deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2013.

“Our colleagues now wander into any conflict covering it as live targets,” says Saady. “Everyone is looking for the witness, because they are there to document it.” Saady, who runs training courses in safety for Egyptian journalists, says the tools used by journalists — notebooks, cameras, flak-jackets — can mark them as potential targets in Egypt. “Bullets in the head are not something that happens coincidentally. Snipers kill journalists that way,” she insists.

“The attacks and the intimidation is not only coming from the government, it’s also coming these days from the normal citizens,” says Abulkhair, who attributes an increase in citizen attacks on journalists to a campaign by the authorities and the mainstream media against sectors of the press who are perceived to be challenging the government’s narratives.

Reporters Without Borders have stated that nine journalists have been killed in connection with their work, more than 50 have been injured and more than 200 arrested in the past three years, yet “no independent investigation has been carried out to identify and punish those responsible for these abuses.”

Egypt’s constitution supposedly guarantees freedom of expression and opinion (article 65), press freedom (article 70), and media independence (article 72). Article 71 bans censorship and prison sentences for media offences.

Yet Saady believes that the media laws and constitutional guarantees are seldom respected. “The impunity in our country encourages more violations,” she says.

Nathan J. Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, says that although there are numerous ways in which the executive can attempt to interfere, the Egyptian judiciary has some structural guarantees of independence. Despite this, Brown argues, there are a significant number of judges who are willing participants in the security crackdown on dissent.

“The judiciary has some members who are sometimes scandalized by particular decisions but who are still essentially comfortable with the post-July 3rd order,” says Brown, “and therefore might push back on individual decisions but are not going to be a brake on the entire process.”

Pressure through the judiciary has increasingly been deployed against journalists in Egypt, as in the case of Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed, who were sentenced by an Egyptian court in June to between 7 to 10 years in prison for terrorism-related charges and for “spreading false news.”

Egypt’s deputy UN ambassador, Osama Abdelkhalek Mahmoud, defended Egypt’s judiciary following international criticism of the verdict. “I have confidence that the due procedures will be followed and justice will be done in such cases and in all other cases,” said Mahmoud, later adding, “We have 1,200 foreign correspondents in Egypt working, none of them were harassed or annoyed […] We highly respect the role played by journalists.”

Yet Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 158th out of 179 countries for press freedom in 2013 and the trial against the Al Jazeera journalists has been condemned by human rights organizations as a farce which they claim has exposed the extent and ambition of the crackdown on freedom of expression by Egypt’s authorities. “This situation is far worse than under Mubarak, SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] or Morsi,” says Mohamed Lofty, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

Lofty, who monitored the trial of the Al Jazeera journalists on behalf of Amnesty International, was not surprised at the guilty verdict. “The sentence fits squarely with all that has been happening in terms of using the judiciary to repress freedom of expression, independent media, and anybody that says something that the government doesn’t want people to know.” Lofty says the message is clear. “It’s basically saying to any journalists that you might find yourselves in this situation.”

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Indeed, plenty more journalists have. The CPJ has confirmed that there are currently at least 14 imprisoned journalists in Egypt.

On the same day as the Al Jazeera convictions, a court in Upper Egypt sentenced Christian journalist Bishoy Armia to five years in prison for “inciting sectarian strife.” The following day a court in Suez sentenced Abdul Rahman Shaheen to three years in prison on charges of inciting and committing violence during protests. Shaheen is a correspondent for the Freedom and Justice News Gate, a website affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. There was little media coverage of these sentences.

Shawkan’s friends and family have set up a Facebook page to raise awareness of his plight. After several months in Abu Zaabal, Shawkan was transferred to Tora, a place that many reports have suggested is more akin to a dungeon than a jail. The cells have been described as cave-like; walls scratched with messages from desperate, bygone inhabitants; an environment where insects thrive; a place where the healthy grow sick, and the sick die. In a smuggled letter, Shawkan described his cell as a “black hole.” There are 15 people held together in a hot, cramped three-square-meter space.

Mohamed, Shawkan’s brother, is able to visit him every week and brings him food. He says that Shawkan spends most of his time reading inside his cell, which he can leave for two hours each day.

Shawkan’s detention was renewed yet again for another 45 days on July 21, 2014. At no point has Shawkan been able to defend himself in front of a judge, yet he has been told that there are 12 allegations against him which include murder, inciting violence, and being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has now been designated as a terrorist organization.

As a freelancer, Shawkan wasn’t a member of Egypt’s Press Syndicate, which issues state-approved accreditation for Egyptian journalists, and he did not have an official journalism permit. Demotix have provided the Egyptian authorities with confirmation that Shawkan was working for them, and Louis Jammes has submitted a written testimony in his defense. Shawkan’s friends and family collected around 3,000 signatures from Egyptian and foreign journalists attesting that Shawkan is a journalist. Shawkan’s lawyer made several appeals to the general prosecutor to plead for his release. The CPJ, alongside a local NGO, are also providing Shawkan with legal support. They have lobbied politicians on his behalf — all to no avail.

When asked why he thinks his brother is still in jail over a year after being arrested, given that the prosecutors investigating the events at Rabaa possess documents demonstrating that Shawkan is a journalist, Mohamed replies, “I would love to answer this question but I can’t because I don’t know.”

Khaled el-Balshy, a Press Syndicate board member, says the long delay in identifying Shawkan as a journalist may be crucial to understanding his ongoing incarceration. He claims the syndicate only heard about the case when he received a letter from Shawkan around three months after he was arrested. El-Balshy says he struggled to confirm that Shawkan is a journalist but that around six months after Shawkan’s arrest the syndicate’s photography department confirmed to the board their belief that he is a freelance journalist.

El-Balshy says the syndicate tends to have limited influence with the authorities once the case has been passed to the prosecution. El-Balshy claims the syndicate sent two requests to the deputy general prosecutor asking him to release all imprisoned journalists, including Shawkan, until they were brought to trial. The requests were ignored. They intend to send a third request shortly.

El-Balshy also says that the chair of the syndicate has met in person with the general prosecutor to make these requests. “The prosecution was very tough,” says el-Balshy. “They said, ‘We have investigations by the police that say they [the imprisoned journalists] have committed violence, it’s not about their profession, and this request [by the syndicate] could be considered interference in the prosecution’s work.’”

“Another point makes the case even more difficult,” adds el-Balshy. “The idea of a freelance photographer is not widely known in Egypt, plus the idea of having a freelance Egyptian photographer, who is not working for any Egyptian media outlet, it’s even rarer.”

Shawkan’s case only further underlined the dangers that freelance journalists in particular face in Egypt and the urgent need to better protect them. Abeer Saady is the vice president of Egypt’s Press Syndicate but disputes that the syndicate has done enough to support Shawkan. She has suspended her own syndicate membership in protest at violence against the media and the lack of support given to freelancers and imprisoned journalists. “We all know that Mahmoud Abu Zeid [Shawkan] is a journalist and [yet] the syndicate is not paying attention to him,” says Saady. She says the syndicate lacks independence and is reluctant to challenge some of the state’s practices towards journalists.

Shaimaa Abulkhair of the CPJ also says that the syndicate should have provided more support: “They don’t want to be part of our campaign or even run their own campaign to release all journalists.”

Although Egyptian law limits the amount of help that the syndicate can offer to non-members, Mai Shams El-Din, a journalist at Egyptian news website Mada Masr, argues that the official Press Syndicate have been reluctant to reform their own bylaws to legally encompass freelancers.

“The syndicate is mostly controlled by people working for certain news organizations, mostly working for the government — Al Ahram newspaper for example,” says Shams. “So if they opened the membership to other people, then the balance of power would definitely shift.” Shams adds that one factor ensuring press freedom remains restricted is that “there are journalists who accept the status quo and they are fine with it.”

“We have a problem with the syndicate law itself because it prevents so many journalists from being members of the syndicate,” admits el-Balshy. He claims that the syndicate’s board is currently drafting plans to split the syndicate into three distinct professional syndicates (a press syndicate, a media syndicate for those working in broadcast journalism, and an online media syndicate) which he claims would circumvent a constitutional article stipulating that only one syndicate can represent a single profession, and would bypass resistance among members of the press syndicate who are reluctant to widen membership to journalists like Shawkan, who would instead join the online workers syndicate.

New media laws will also be drafted imminently. Whether the authorities will allow new laws governing press freedom and whether they will allow new syndicates to have political independence seems doubtful, given the general crackdown on dissent.

Abeer Saady says that if there is a positive trend to be found in Egyptian journalism it is in the young journalists coming through who have experienced the Egyptian uprisings and are more likely to think for themselves, act independently, and challenge the status quo. “Even the syndicate and other organizations who are not responding to reform, they are going to realize that it’s not going to work and they have to change,” says Saady. “Against the idea of the ‘deep state’ — there is the ‘young state.’”

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If Shawkan’s support team can’t procure his freedom, they at least hope to secure a trial where he can defend himself in a court, in front of a judge. Certain logic suggests that Shawkan would easily rebut the charges but, as the case of the Al Jazeera journalists showed, a fair trial is far from guaranteed in Egypt. In court, Shawkan may find himself subject to the political vicissitudes of a system that is waging an assault on journalists, dissent, and on the political significance of Rabaa itself.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report to coincide with the one year anniversary of the killings at Rabaa. They concluded that the clearance of the square was a premeditated assault that was equal to or worse in scale than China’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and likely amounts to a crime against humanity, given that it was a deliberate policy to fire on largely peaceful protesters.

HRW documented at least 817 deaths and say that the actual figure is likely to top 1,000. Hazem Al-Beblawy, the then Egyptian prime minister told state media, “The dispersal plan succeeded 100 percent,” and that the government had actually expected many more casualties.

The HRW report suggests that concerned governments must investigate to identify culpability for the massacre, which may reach to the highest echelons of Egyptian power, given that Sisi, Egypt’s current president, was defense minister at the time. The Egyptian authorities subsequently rejected the report as “negative and biased.”

Perhaps the simple explanation for Shawkan’s extended detention is that Egypt’s notoriously clunky bureaucracy is struggling to process the mass of detainees from Rabaa and they haven’t yet got to Shawkan’s case. Maybe when they reach his case they will acknowledge the evidence and he will be freed. Or perhaps the evidence will free him in a court of law.

Equally, the simple fact of Shawkan’s presence at Rabaa might be deemed enough to confer guilt by association in the government’s political fight against the Brotherhood. As journalists and bystanders arrested at protests continue to be conflated with demonstrators, who are in turn conflated with “terrorists,” the authorities deny both the right to protest and the legitimacy of independent journalism.

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Shawkan’s photography has been published in international newspapers and magazines, and has been used by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Index on Censorship. Yet, it is now Shawkan’s own face that appears in the media and in human rights campaigns. The witness has become the subject, the topic, the image.

Louis Jammes has been able to communicate with his friend and says that Shawkan pins articles written about himself to the wall of his cell, deriving strength from a growing campaign for his freedom.

Shawkan is in a more fortunate position than many: other imprisoned Egyptian journalists who work solely for domestic outlets receive a fraction of the attention Shawkan does, as do the many thousands of people who were arrested in Rabaa and beyond.

Shawkan’s friends and family remain hopeful. “I think he will be released but I don’t know when,” said El-Sherbini in June. “We hope to have him back for Ramadan.” El-Sherbini said that Shawkan’s morale was good and that he was finding solace in religion. “He’s strong, he has faith and he hasn’t given up.”

Ramadan came and passed, and Shawkan’s administrative detention was renewed yet again. El-Sherbini’s frustration became more palpable. “365 days of kidnapping and detention and he is still behind bars with no one talking, with no one caring,” he exclaimed days before the year anniversary of his friend’s incarceration.

A year in prison bears a heavy toll. Mohamed says his brother is very depressed and his psychological state is worsening. “He prays and tries to be patient,” says Mohamed. “He feels he will get free one day and he will keep working.”

In the smuggled letter Shawkan expressed anger, defiance, and hope. “I was just doing my job. Why are the authorities detaining me?” he asks when reflecting on the day of his arrest. Like his family and friends, Shawkan describes his status in administrative detention without charge as being “kidnapped.”He says he misses his camera and when released he will be back on the street working as a freelance photojournalist.

First, he must gain freedom from a system that often disavows the very concept of independent journalism.

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Patrick Keddie is a British freelance writer based in Cairo.


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