One year later: Press freedom in Egypt deteriorates after #FreeAJstaff success

Thursday, September 15, 2016
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A photojournalist takes cover behind a barricade during a protest in Cairo, Egypt. PHOTO: Alisdare Hickson.

By Taryn Blanchard

It has been almost a year since journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were pardoned and released from prison in Egypt, ending the almost two-year global campaign that came to be known as #FreeAJstaff. While the anniversary of their release on September  23rd is cause for celebration, it is also cause for reflection, debriefs and updates about the state of press freedom in Egypt today.  

Spoiler: press freedom in Egypt has only deteriorated.

#FreeAJstaff and championing imprisoned journalists

On December 29, 2013, three Al Jazeera English journalists were arrested in Egypt and accused of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news. Mohamed Fahmy (Canadian-Egyptian), Peter Greste (Australian) and Baher Mohamed (Egyptian) were convicted in June 2014. A retrial began in February 2015 and ended with a second conviction on all charges in August 2015. Peter Greste was tried in absentia after being deported to Australia, while Fahmy and Mohamed remained in prison in Cairo.

Throughout this saga, press freedom advocates from all corners of the globe raised their voices in solidarity to condemn the spurious charges and show trials to which the journalists were being unjustly subjected. In addition, various governments and intergovernmental organizations expressed their disapproval of the journalists’ treatment and called for their release, including Canada, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, Britain and Australia—which was at least partly effective, given Greste’s deportation.


On September 23, 2015, coinciding with the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, Egyptian President el-Sisi pardoned 100 prisoners, including Fahmy and Mohamed. Fahmy would return to Canada at the beginning of October, holding his first press conference in the country with CJFE.

Over the past year, Fahmy has put his much deserved freedom to hard work, becoming a champion for imprisoned journalists and Canadians abroad by:

  • Building up the Fahmy Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 2015 with Marwa Omara, his wife;
  • Collaborating with Amnesty International to present the Canadian government with a 12-point Protection Charter that will ensure greater advocacy and intervention for Canadians detained overseas;
  • Joining CJFE as a member of its Board of Directors;
  • Representing the Fahmy Foundation and CJFE at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s June 2016 session to formally request the appointment of a UN Special Representative for the Safety of Journalists; and,
  • Campaigning for numerous journalists and critical voices imprisoned abroad, such as Professor Homa Hoodfar, photojournalist Shawkan, and writer-activist Raif Badawi.

Egypt’s 2016 clampdown on the press

The success of the #FreeAJstaff campaign unfortunately belies the state of press freedom in Egypt since the journalists’ release. By the end of 2015, Egypt was second only to China as the world’s worst jailer of journalists, with President el-Sisi continuing to use the excuse of national security to silence dissent. Research from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows that in contrast to at least 23 jailed journalists at the end of 2015, no journalists were imprisoned for their work as recently as 2012.

Freedom House also reports that dozens of journalists were physically assaulted during the year by both security agents and civilian supporters of the regime. In addition to physical harm and legal prosecution, Egyptian authorities continue to intimidate and silence journalists through other methods, including gag orders and the outright halting of media outlets’ operations. The result has been an almost complete nationalization of the press, as journalists and media organizations maintain the state narrative while suppressing any critical views of the regime.

To further illustrate the dramatic decline of Egyptian press freedom, the country has fallen a whopping 31 positions on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in only six years—ranking 158 out of 179 countries today, down from 127 in 2010.

So just how far has the country’s press freedom fallen in 2016? In addition to the 23 journalists already in prison at the beginning of 2015, here are some of the most notable violations of press freedom in Egypt that have taken place so far this year:

  • Dozens of foreign and Egyptian journalists were arrested while covering major protests against the government across the country.
  • Egypt’s Interior Ministry unlawfully raided the headquarters of the country’s press syndicate at the beginning of May, coinciding with World Press Freedom Day.
  • Three leaders of Egypt’s press syndicate were detained and interrogated for more than 12 hours on charges of spreading false news and harbouring fugitives. They were released pending trial.
  • Nine journalists who covered the forcible clearing of Cairo’s Rabaa Square protests in August 2013 were retried on charges of fabricating news and sowing chaos to undermine the government.
  • Three journalists, including two former Al Jazeera staff, were sentenced to death in absentia by a Cairo court for allegedly spying for Qatar.
  • Three journalists and one press freedom advocate were each sentenced to three years in prison on charges of spreading false news and belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Journalist Mahmoud al-Sakka was arrested, journalist Mohamed Abdel Moneim was sentenced to three years in prison, and journalist Islam Al-Behery was sentenced to one year in prison—all within the span of days of one another.
  • British-Lebanese journalist Liliane Daoud, who worked for the privately-owned Egyptian TV channel ONTV, was arrested in her home and summarily deported.
  • French journalist Rémy Pigaglio, who had been stationed in Cairo, was denied reentry to Egypt after vacationing in France. No reason was given.
  • 85 journalists were unlawfully dismissed from online private news website Dotmsr.
  • Journalist Sabry Anwar was arrested and disappeared by Egyptian authorities after he told his wife he was tortured by police while in custody.
  • Investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat was prevented from leaving Egypt under a travel ban without being provided a reason.
  • Photojournalist Ali Abdeen was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting illegal protests, obstructing traffic and publishing false news.
  • Photojournalist Shawkan surpassed 1000 days in pre-trial detention.


PHOTO: CiLuna27

#FreeShawkan campaign continues on

In 2016, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a photojournalist better known as Shawkan, faced repeated postponements of his trial and surpassed 1000 days in prison. Shawkan was one of many media workers scooped up in August 2013 during violent clashes in Cairo that saw hundreds killed. Foreign journalists from the United States and France who were arrested at the same time were eventually released; Shawkan was not. Instead, he was charged with murder, attempted murder and belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood—crimes that could see him sentenced to death if convicted.

But Shawkan has been left waiting for a decision for more than three years now, with his pre-trial detention becoming one of the longest in Egypt’s history, as well as a flagrant violation of its constitution and laws. In comparison, Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed—whose arrests sparked the international #FreeAJstaff campaign, spent between 400 and 438 days in prison.

The years of campaigning for Shawkan’s release have also achieved international reach, with press freedom advocates around the world repeatedly denouncing his continued incarceration and calling for his immediate and unconditional release. But Shawkan’s case has not provoked hundreds of BBC reporters to protest as they did for the three Al Jazeera journalists, or lead to thousands of images being shared of people holding signs that read “#FreeAJstaff” and “#journalismisnotacrime,” often with tape covering their mouths.


The #FreeShawkan campaign has, however, still been covered in the Western media, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently showcased the photojournalist’s work in partnership with the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City. Shawkan has also been awarded one of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Awards in 2016.

As Eid al-Adha approached this year, #FreeShawkan campaigners and supporters saw their hopes rise and efforts redouble as the potential for a pardon from President el-Sisi neared. But Eid came and went on September 11-12 without a pardon for the photojournalist, despite his declining health and pardons being handed out to 759 other prisoners.

So while the #FreeAJstaff campaign was able to eke out a win—even if it took a couple years—the #FreeShawkan campaign must doggedly continue on. And because Shawkan is an Egyptian citizen, he does not have a foreign government that is obligated to apply pressure to el-Sisi. This is why it is even more important for press freedom advocates around the world—whether journalists, photographers, activists, defenders of human rights or merely supporters of truth and art—to remain committed and dedicated to the #FreeShawkan campaign.

Shawkan is behind bars solely for doing his work as a photojournalist—peacefully, brilliantly and truthfully. Fight back against your own discouragement and fatigue by imagining what Shawkan has been experiencing for the past 1000 days in Tora Prison, which he has described as “a cemetery. It is a place where dreams come to die.”

As Mohamed Fahmy said upon his return to Canada, “If you ever doubt that campaigns and advocacy make a difference…I am living proof that they do.”


Learn more and get involved

Follow @ShawkanZeid on Twitter and Freedom For Shawkan on Facebook
Add your voice online with #FreeShawkan
Sign the petitions: Amnesty International (English) and/or Reporters Without Borders (German)
Donate to the campaign

Taryn Blanchard is CJFE’s Programs Coordinator.

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