Journalist Khaled El Balshy — a keen defender of freedom of expression and a democracy advocate, deputy head of the Egyptian Press Syndicate and head of the syndicate’s Freedom Committee — has been vigorously campaigning for the release of jailed journalists in Egypt. This week Balshy himself faced prosecution and risked being imprisoned on charges of “inciting protests, insulting the police and inciting to overthrow the regime.”
His ordeal was short-lived, however, lasting only a few days. On April 6 the Interior Ministry, which had filed the legal complaint against him, was forced to withdraw the lawsuit following an outcry from fellow journalists, free speech advocates and rights organizations, triggered by the miscalculated move.
The legal complaint against Balshy was filed earlier in the week by the assistant interior minister for legal affairs, who provided video footage and screen shots of Balshy’s posts on Facebook and Twitter as “evidence” against the journalist. The lawsuit resulted in an arrest warrant against Balshy by the general prosecution.
Balshy was unruffled throughout the crisis. Minutes after hearing of the warrant for his arrest, he boldly declared in a Facebook post: “If they want to arrest me, I’m in my office. I’m not better than those who are imprisoned.”
Balshy told Al-Monitor over the telephone that he hoped that his prosecution would “throw the spotlight on the cases of others unjustly detained in Egypt, especially the jailed journalists." Since the military takeover of the country in July 2013, tens of thousands of political opposition figures have been arrested and detained as part of a sweeping security crackdown on dissent that has targeted Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters as well as secular activists, researchers, journalists and intellectuals.
Refusing to be silenced by the legal measure leveled against him, Balshy on April 4 published a list of some 40 journalists in Egypt who were either imprisoned or under threat of being detained, citing the circumstances of their arrests and the media organizations they worked for. The list includes freelance photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid (known to his fans as Shawkan), who was arrested Aug. 14, 2013, while taking pictures for the UK-based citizen journalism site Demotix during the forced dispersal of a Cairo sit-in by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. He has languished in pretrial detention for nearly 1,000 days and is reportedly suffering from hepatitis C. After two previous postponements, his trial was adjourned again on April 4, until April 23.
Among other journalists on Balshy’s published list are Mohamed El Batawy and Hani Salahudin. Batawy had worked for the state-sponsored Akhbar El Youm newspaper before he was arrested at his home in June 2015. He has since been in pretrial detention and has not been formally charged to date. Meanwhile, Salahudin, who worked for the privately owned Youm 7 newspaper, has been handed a life sentence for “spreading false news” while reporting on the Rabia al-Adawiya pro-Morsi sit-in.
Secular writer Fatma Naaot and novelist Ahmed Nagy are also on the list. Last month, a Cairo misdemeanor court upheld a three-year jail sentence handed down to Naaot for “contempt of religion” after she criticized the “cruel slaughtering of sheep during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha” in one of her articles. Ironically, Naaot was in Toronto, reportedly attending a conference on freedom of expression, when the verdict was pronounced. Nagy was sentenced to two years in prison in February on the charge of violating public morality after sexually explicit excerpts from his novel “The Use of Life” were published in the state-owned literary magazine Akhbar El Adab.
While there has hardly been any noise over the jailing of journalists with alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the verdicts against Naaot and Nagy and the arrest warrant against Balshy provoked outrage in Egypt. After an outcry in Egyptian media over the conviction of Naaot, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last week urged parliament to review the country’s blasphemy laws, which critics have denounced as outdated and harmful. Meanwhile, in an outpouring of anger on social media over Nagy’s conviction, activists have campaigned for the novelist’s release using the Arabic hashtag that translates into #CreativityOnTrial. Hot on the heels of the convictions of the two writers, the arrest warrant against Balshy was the last straw, fueling anger and raising fears of the further stifling of freedom of expression in the country. Twenty-two rights organizations, six political parties and nearly 100 individuals signed a strongly worded petition condemning the warrant for Balshy’s arrest as “an attack on the media.” The petition, published April 6 on the Al Bedaya news site, stated that “the authorities must accept criticism — or else step down.” It gave the prosecutor general 48 hours to drop the charges, threatening an escalation if this did not happen.
Under such intense pressure, the Interior Ministry was left with no option but to backtrack. On April 6, it withdrew the lawsuit against Balshy and asked the Attorney General’s office to drop the charges.
Egyptian officials have repeatedly rebutted claims that journalists are being targeted as part of the crackdown on dissent, insisting that there are no journalists behind bars for their work. In September 2015, Sisi told CNN in a televised interview that “Egypt enjoys unprecedented freedom of speech” and that "no one has been prosecuted for expressing his/her views." Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has on several occasions slammed international rights organizations for their criticism of “the government’s suppression of free speech,” insisting that this was “unacceptable interference in our internal affairs.”
Until recently, much of the Egyptian media and the majority of Egyptians had also rejected international criticism of the restrictions on the media in Egypt, perceiving the criticism as “part of the foreign conspiracy to destroy Egypt.” Lately however, there has been an almost abrupt turnabout with more journalists — including regime loyalists and those who had previously practiced self-censorship — becoming increasingly vocal in their criticism of “the muzzling of journalists through intimidation tactics” and “the unfair detention of writers and researchers.”
The string of prosecution of writers, researchers and activists, the travel bans imposed on several human rights defenders and the escalating crackdown on civil society organizations have all combined to cause the major shift in public opinion and the change in the tone of the media. Add to the above the restrictive anti-protest and anti-terrorism laws stifling freedom of assembly and expression and the repeated media blackouts on issues of public concern. Hence, it is not surprising that there was an angry eruption at the prospect of yet another journalist being convicted. The regime clearly has not learned the lesson from Mubarak’s unplugging of the Internet during the 2011 uprising — a move that fueled the anger against the former dictator, leading to his ultimate overthrow. The government must acknowledge that the right to information and freedom of expression are basic human rights. If those rights are denied, the very structure on which a democratic society is built would quickly crumble.
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